Energy efficiency "refers to products or systems using less energy to do the same or better job than conventional products or systems" [EPA]. Increasing efficiency is one of the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective technological solutions for cutting carbon dioxide emissions and mitigating climate change. By saving electricity, we save coal and oil from being burned. The less energy used, the less carbon to worry about.
Energy efficiency also makes economic sense: saving energy means saving money. When you purchase an appliance or remodel part of your home, you pay two costs: the cost of the appliance, materials, or labor, and the price of the energy it uses henceforth. While it may initially cost more to invest in efficiency, efficiency pays you back in monthly energy savings. For example, an ENERGY STAR certified washing machine may cost $200-400 more than a conventional one, but it will save you an average of $110 per year.
Here are some ways Green America recommends to increase your efficiency:
Optimize heating and air conditioning
The air conditioning and heating unit in your house can use up to one-half of total home energy consumption. Cutting your energy use here, therefore, is one of the most effective ways to reduce your home’s ecological footprint.
- Shave 25 percent off your energy bill just by plugging air leaks. Caulk and weatherstrip doors and windows, cover your air conditioner, shrink-wrap window glass, and install insulating shades to keep icy drafts out of your home in winter.
- Turn the thermostat or air conditioner down when you're away from the house. Programmable thermostats can store as many as six temperature settings per day, returning to pre-set schedules automatically.
- Open south-facing shades during the day, and close the curtains at night to make the most out of the sun's energy during winter. During the summer, close these shades during the day.
- Read our article: Buying the Best Appliances
Take the five lightbulb challenge
In the US, we use one-quarter of our electricity for lighting. Most of that powers incandescent lightbulbs, which are notoriously inefficient. In contrast, compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) conserve energy by yielding three to four times the amount of light as incandescents for every watt they consume. Since they're so long-lasting, you'll only replace one CFL for every 13 incandescent bulbs you use, saving resources and landfill space. Plus, for every five CFLs you install, you'll keep 900 pounds of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. Challenge yourself to replace at least five incandescent bulbs in your home with CFLs. You won't just be doing the environment a service—you'll save $25–$45 in energy costs for each CFL you use.
In many areas, the local power company subsidizes CFLs. Before you buy, call your local power company and ask if it offers subsidies.
Turn off your appliances
According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Environment (ACEEE), home electronics and small household appliances that require direct current—such as televisions, VCRs, answering machines, cordless telephones, stereos, and others—can actually leak electricity when they're turned off. The average US household leaks 50 watts of power constantly, which adds up to around 400 kWh per year, says ACEEE. To plug at least part of this energy drain, unplug home entertainment systems when they're not in use. You can make this easy by plugging several items into one surge protector. You'll also want to pay special attention to small electronics and appliances that have square, “wall pack” boxes that plug into outlets. Examples include electric toothbrushes and cordless phones.
Look for the Energy Star® appliances
When you do buy new items, look for those labeled with the Energy Star®. Energy Star® is a voluntary program run by the US EPA designed to identify energy-efficient products. You can find the Energy Star® logo on appliances, electronics, windows, heating and cooling systems, and even homes and office buildings. If all consumers, businesses, and organizations in the US made their product choices and building improvement decisions with Energy Star® over the next decade, the national annual energy bill would be reduced by about $200 billion, says the EPA.
Turn down your refrigerator
The refrigerator is the biggest energy consumer in most households—adding up to a quarter of an average home's energy use. You can save energy here by ensuring that you don't keep your refrigerator too cold. The recommended temperature setting for refrigerators is between 37 degrees and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and 5 degrees Fahrenheit for the freezer section. To test the temperature, place an appliance thermometer in a glass of water inside your refrigerator and take a reading after 24 hours. In the freezer, place the thermometer between frozen food packages and read after 24 hours. Also, remember to clean your coils, unless you have a no-clean condenser model, so your fridge will run more efficiently. And, make sure your seals are airtight, otherwise they'll let cool air, and energy, escape.
Use rechargeable batteries
Americans toss more than three billion small consumer batteries into the landfill every year, according to Real Goods' Solar Living Sourcebook, the majority of which are one-time-use alkaline batteries. You can save energy—and money—and reduce toxic waste by using rechargeable batteries. According to Real Goods, throwaway batteries cost $0.10 per hour to operate, if you figure in energy and replacement costs. In contrast, rechargeable batteries cost only $0.001 per hour. Real Goods recommends nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeables, which contain no toxic metals, unlike rechargeable alkalines, and offer almost twice the capacity per cell compared to nicad rechargeables. Go one step further to encourage the green energy future and buy a solar battery charger.
Dry clothes with less energy
The second largest electricity-using appliance is your clothes dryer. Energy Star® does not rate clothes dryers because the amount of energy used from model to model varies little. The average dryer consumes about 88 kilowatt hours per month, with an average annual cost of $89 per year to operate (for a family of four). But you can set up more efficient ways to dry clothes, such as using an outdoor clothes line or an indoor drying rack. If you're an average user, and you can cut your dryer use by half that's a savings of 528 kilowatt hours per year, or $45.
Read our article: Fire Your Clothes Dryer
Use cold water instead of hot water to clean clothes
Despite popular misconception, your clothes will still be clean, but so will the environment. You can reduce your carbon emissions by 600 pounds by switching to cold water for every load.