How You Can Transform Your Energy Use

The energy revolution is something we can all be a part of, as RMI staff show

By Laurie Guevara-Stone, senior writer/editor at Rocky Mountain Institute

At Rocky Mountain Institute, we work hard to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future. Many of the projects we work on involve entire countries (e.g., Reinventing Fire: China), entire industries (e.g., shipping and trucking), and very large energy consumers (e.g., corporations like Walmart and General Motors through our Business Renewables Center, and commercial building portfolio owners through our Portfolio Energy Optimization initiative). But many of the things we work on can be done by you, in your own home and everyday life, to save energy, money, and carbon emissions.

There are some things that can be done simply with little to no cost. And other things may have a higher up-front cost, but pay off in the long run. Here are some meaningful ways that you can join the energy revolution in your own life.

BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR DEMAND

Find out when demand for electricity from your local utility is at its peak, and make sure to run your appliances at off-peak hours. By shifting your demand, you can help utilities avoid using fossil fuel-powered “peaking” plants, which fire up only when demand is at its highest. Some utilities offer a time-of-use plan, selling cheaper electricity during off-peak hours. But even without such a plan, you can easily save energy by running your dishwasher, washing machine, and other appliances during off-peak times. RMI’s research has shown that demand flexibility can unlock $13 billion per year of avoided investments in the electric grid and 10 to 40 percent savings on customer bills.

“An energy retrofit of your home can be as easy as switching out your compact fluorescent bulbs for LEDs, installing smart thermostats, or upgrading to more efficient appliances.”

You can also invest in smart appliances that are enabled with technology from RMI’s subsidiary, WattTime. WattTime technology automatically syncs the times your appliances use power to moments when your local grid is supplying clean energy, so that you can choose to lower your carbon emissions without impacting costs or comfort. WattTime’s software is now in select smart thermostats, electric vehicle chargers, HVAC systems, and more. Enabling water heaters and air conditioners to adjust their timing just slightly could reduce carbon emissions in the United States by over 6 million tons per year — the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.

“Getting rid of a vehicle can save the average US family over $5,000 per year while greatly reducing CO2 emissions.”

“Using internet-enabled devices equipped with WattTime software could help you reduce your carbon footprint substantially with little or no effort,” says Jamie Mandel, a principal in RMI’s Disruptive Technologies initiative. “Demand flexibility is a huge opportunity both for the grid and for you as a consumer. And it’s getting easier as, increasingly, your devices can automatically use electricity at off-peak times.”

PURCHASE CARBON OFFSETS

If you take a round-trip flight from New York to California in the summer, you can generate 0.9 tons of carbon. A simple and low-cost way to lower the carbon footprint of your air travel is to purchase carbon offsets. For example, through The Good Traveler program, your purchase of carbon offsets can support tree planting at the Arcata Community Forest in Northern California — which captures atmospheric carbon — or wind power at the Big Smile Wind Farm at Dempsey Ridge — which displaces carbon-emitting power plants — among other carbon-reduction programs. With the number of air passengers expected to double by 2035, the need for carbon reduction will grow. “By purchasing carbon offsets, people can support climate action with very little effort,” says Adam Klauber, director of RMI’s Sustainable Aviation program, which oversees The Good Traveler. “RMI is also working to integrate sustainable jet fuel, which will be a game-changer for decarbonizing the fast-growing aviation industry.”

Weatherizing your home can be as simple as caulking your windows.

WEATHERIZE YOUR HOME

Weatherizing your home may seem like a huge undertaking. But it can be as simple as caulking your windows and adding window film. If you want to go a bit further, invest in an energy audit and/or blower door test. Many utility companies offer rebates for these undertakings. Once you find out where your home is leaking, add insulation to those areas, especially in attics, walls, and underinsulated cavities. “After I upgraded the insulation in my attic and encapsulated, sealed, and insulated my crawl space, my house used less energy and became much more comfortable,” says Ellen Franconi, a manager in RMI’s buildings practice.

RETROFIT YOUR HOME

An energy retrofit of your home can be as easy as switching out your compact fluorescent bulbs for LEDs, installing smart thermostats, or upgrading to more efficient appliances. You could even go further than the low-hanging fruit and implement a deep energy retrofit, cutting your energy use by as much as 90 percent. This could entail upgrading your heating and cooling systems for higher efficiency (and greater safety), insulating your hot water pipes and replacing your water heater with a high-efficiency heater, and increasing natural daylighting.

Existing US homes account for 20 percent of the country’s primary energy consumption, and every step you take to retrofit your home is better for your health, your pocketbook, and the planet. “We’re working to make it easier and more cost effective for people to have better homes,” says Jacob Corvidae, a manager in RMI’s Residential Energy+ initiative. “We want our lives to be healthy, comfortable, and financially strong, and to contribute to the greater good. It’s time to take those ambitions and bring them home.”

Getting rid of your car means you have room to start a rock band in your garage.

GET RID OF YOUR CAR

Most of our personal cars in the United States sit unused 95 percent of the time. It’s getting easier to move past the individual car ownership paradigm every day. RMI believes that a recent convergence of societal trends and technological advances will lead to electric, autonomous Mobility as a Service, which has the potential to break our dependence on personally owned vehicles. Jerry Weiland, managing director in RMI’s Mobility Transformation program, believes this mobility future means fewer cars will be needed to move greater numbers of people more efficiently with lower cost and less climate impact. “We’re going to have an opportunity to share cars,” says Weiland, “and this mobility-on-demand paradigm will make it easy and cost-effective for people to have alternatives to owning and driving their own cars alone.”

Getting rid of a vehicle can save the average US family over $5,000 per year while greatly reducing CO2 emissions. Plus, when you get rid of your car, new real estate opens up in your home — your garage. Start a rock band, build a gym, set up an art studio — the possibilities are endless. Repurposing your garage to additional living space is a sound investment, as the value of the average garage’s 570 ft2 of added living space is approximately $70,000 per home — using the 2016 national average for single-family home sales of about $123/ft2.

RMI’s Mobility Transformation program is currently working with the City of Austin, Texas, to help it become the nexus of “new mobility,” including mobility on demand, and to create a scalable model for other cities both nationally and globally.

INVEST IN AN ELECTRIC VEHICLE

Not up for completely getting rid of your car? Then invest in an electric vehicle (EV). Most US drivers drive less than 40 miles per day, easily within the range of most EVs. And newer EVs can go over 200 miles on a charge. Charging an EV is cheaper than filling up your vehicle’s gas tank, and EVs need no oil changes, spark plug replacements, or several other kinds of costly maintenance. They also don’t have any tailpipe emissions and, as more cities, communities, and homes supply electricity from renewable sources, EVs get even cleaner.

A home solar photovoltaic system is a great way to reduce your use of fossil fuels. PHOTO: courtesy Green Energy Futures

INVEST IN A SOLAR POWER SYSTEM

Producing your electricity with solar photovoltaic panels is a great way to reduce your use of fossil fuels. And these days there’s a plethora of ways to get your electricity from the sun. If you have room at your home for solar panels, you can purchase a solar photovoltaic (PV) system outright, you can lease a PV system, or you can even sign up for a power purchase agreement in which you don’t actually pay for the system, but just for the energy it produces.

If you have no space at your house or if you rent, you can still join in the solar revolution. You can subscribe to a community solar array — a solar PV plant near your home that is shared by multiple households. “Community-scale solar is rapidly proving to be the most affordable form of electricity available directly to customers, with guaranteed savings in some markets,” says Joseph Goodman, a principal in RMI’s Shine™ initiative. “For example, some of the utilities we’re working with in Texas can share the economic savings from community-scale solar with low income households in their constituencies.”

ADD BATTERIES TO YOUR PV SYSTEM

Want to take it one step further? Invest in storage as well. As battery costs continue to fall and utilities implement time-of-use or demand charge rate structures that reward shifting the times you use energy, solar-plus-storage systems are becoming economically optimal in some parts of the country. Plus, they can offer other important benefits, such as backup power in the event of a blackout.

RMI’s report The Economics of Battery Energy Storage details 13 services that batteries can provide, including allowing utilities to avoid investments in new natural gas plants to meet peak demand and reducing customer’s energy bills. “In a growing number of markets in the United States and abroad, investing in solar-plus storage can improve project economics compared with a stand-alone solar system, while also providing backup power to critical electric loads in the event of broader grid disruption,” says Jesse Morris, a principal in RMI’s electricity practice.

Even your family pet would enjoy a modern electric vehicle, which can go over 200 miles on a single charge.

SMALL STEPS MAKE BIG IMPACTS

As RMI continues to work with cities, states, governments, utilities, corporations, and more to transform global energy use, we can all do our part. Saving energy in our homes and our everyday lives — while it may seem small — can have a big impact on the world. What we do at RMI can be taken down to an individual level, helping people to take their own steps to save money, energy, and carbon.