James Kuntsler has called the evolving energy situation the long emergency. In Kuntslers view, the days of plentiful, low-cost energy supplies are over, and we will have to redesign our communities and adjust our lifestyles to adjust to the evolving situation.
Others sharing his view call for rebuilding local economies around using less energy, improving mass transit and growing more food locally.
The sooner a community initiates serious efforts to reorganize their local economy around dwindling and costly energy supplies, the more successful they are likely to be.
In contrast, oil interests ran a week of ads in The Wall Street Journal proclaiming that peak oil is premature, and plentiful supplies await appropriate government action. They advocate more research, adoption of new energy technologies and supportive government policies to ensure plentiful supplies. They accept higher prices and reflect a business as usual approach.
Meantime, we are left to adjust to the dramatically higher cost of electricity. We have received phone calls and e-mails asking for advice about what individuals who heat with electricity can do to lessen their costs. Integral to the all-electric building strategy was high insulation levels. Some had as much as a foot of cellulose insulation above the top ceiling level, providing an R 40 rating. If space is available between the roof and ceiling, more insulation can be added.
Electric homes may not have high levels of insulation in the walls. If the outer wall is brick there may not be space to add insulation. If the house has standard siding, an inch of foam insulation could be added and new siding placed over it. In new construction, R 25 insulation performs very well.
If the home has a basement, insulation could be added either on the outside or inside of the wall. R 11 walls are common, although an R 20 level should be considered.
If a vapor barrier already exists, add barrier-free insulation. Care must be taken to not have water vapor condense within the insulation. It will decrease the effectiveness of the insulation and may give rise to mold problems. Before adding any insulation, discuss plans with an insulation contractor or an energy rater.
Consider having a new heating system installed. If a whole house unit is desired, consider a very high-efficiency natural gas furnace. Also, check into a ground source heat pump. While it still relies on electricity to work pumps and motors, electricity is not used to produce heat, but rather to capture and concentrate the grounds heat.
As discussed in previous columns, rooms might be closed off in winter with only one or two heated to a more comfortable level. A propane heating unit could be installed in the wall of a room to provide supplemental heat. Corn, pellet and wood-burning stoves and furnaces also provide supplemental heat. (note: Be sure to check with your insurance agent and local authorities to see what is necessary to meet safety codes in your area.)
Another choice would be to have a solar hot water system installed to provide supplemental heat. However, since the sun does not always shine, backup energy is still needed. In this case, the existing electric resistance heating system would help.
The article by Roland Wolff describes how a family upgraded an old, energy guzzling, drafty farm house into a very energy-efficient home. Home Power magazine and Home Energy magazine have articles addressing retrofitting homes or building for energy efficiency and are excellent sources for additional ideas.
If we have entered the long emergency, conservation and efficiency are the most effective ways to adjust.
Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.
From the March 7-13, 2007, issue