Renewable Faith: Affordable, Renewable Energy

How a Maryland family converted their house to renewable energy and drastically reduced their greenhouse gas emissions on a tight budget.

| November/December 2002

  • Sheltering trees and an old-fashioned porch contribute to natural cooling.

  • Photography by Renée Comet
  • Thirty-six PV panels provide 70 percent of the needed electricity.

  • Corn is cheaper and easier on the environment than natural gas.
  • To save energy, the Tidwells dry clothes on a line.

  • Mike Tidwell and his wife, Catherine, installed much of the PV system themselves.

All but a small fraction of my household energy budget comes from renewable, carbon dioxide-neutral sources. The electricity arrives from photovoltaic panels on the roof, the heating from an electronically controlled potbellied stove that burns corn kernels and warms most of my Takoma Park, Maryland, home, and the hot water from a separate rooftop panel that converts sunlight to infrared heat.

You must be thinking I’m a very wealthy man to be able to afford such extravagant gadgets. Everyone knows that amazingly effective renewable energy technologies are out there. The problem is that average Americans—the very people who need to switch if we’re going to stop global warming—simply can’t afford them, right?

Wrong. In my case, I’m a hopelessly middle-class, self-employed writer with a four-year-old son. No rich uncle died and left my wife, Catherine, and me a large inheritance. We didn’t scrape together years worth of savings. We made all of our energy changes abruptly, within the past six months, and now we’re spending the handsome sum of—get this—$38.83 per month to pay for them. And here’s the best part: Most of these planet-saving technologies are available and affordable right now for any homeowner willing to do a little bit of research, borrow a modest sum of money, and spend that money wisely.

A personal revolution

It was last January’s bombshell findings of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that motivated us to plot our home energy revolution. Disastrous planetary warming of up to 10.4 degrees by 2100 is doubly horrifying each time I look out at my son playing whiffle ball with playmates destined to live until 2070. We knew the modest targets set by the Kyoto Protocol wouldn’t save the planet either. Most scientists believe the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must drop a full 80 percent below current levels to stabilize the climate.

So that became our goal—to cut our household CO2 emissions by 80 percent. We developed a budget of $7,500. Being of modest means, we had to borrow the money in the form of a home equity loan. Our very first investment was a book called Homemade Money, published by the Rocky Mountain Institute for people wanting to save money through improved energy use. The first step, we learned, was to eliminate unnecessary energy consumption and to use more efficiently the energy we couldn’t live without. So we switched to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, bought an extremely high-efficiency refrigerator, and began drying our clothes on a line. With these and other changes, we cut our electricity use by 52 percent, from 3,760 kilowatt hours in 2000 to an annual rate of around 1,800 kWh.

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