Changing Your Life to Use Less Energy

Nov 18, 2014

Choosing to live simply and off the grid, Chuck Cole uses a series of marine batteries and a single solar panel to provide all his electricity.
Credit Steve Junker / WCAI

Here’s a question for you: how much electricity did you use last month? That’s not how much did you pay on your electric bill – but how much electric power did you use?

If you're serious about using less, a good place to start is to understand how much you already consume.

In Falmouth I sat at the kitchen table with Ben and Kellie Porter and their two young children, as Ben opened his laptop to examine the family electric bill.

“It was 600 last month, 700 in July," he said. "Middle of the winter it was down to 400.  So between 600 and 400. Then July - big month.”   

Ben deals with numbers all day long at work – he’s a banker. But the numbers he was citing now weren’t dollars, they were kilowatt hours per month. That’s how your electric utility company measures what you use. The Porter family is trying to use less.

Kellie explained,  “We switched to gas heat and an on-demand gas water heater last winter. And we’re switching to a gas stove soon.  So we’re trying to get rid of these energy hogs as much as we can.”

In the United States, the total energy consumption in homes has remained relatively stable for many years, despite an increase in the number and average size of homes. That’s because a boom in demand has been largely offset by increases in efficiency. Modern homes are better insulated, and new light bulbs are lower wattage.

But for many people, just holding steady in energy use isn’t doing enough. The Porters, in addition to improving their efficiency with better appliances, also take the “green electricity” option on their bill.

“I think it’s on average maybe ten dollars more a month,” Kellie said. Ben, looking at the bill, agreed. “At this point we can’t buy a Prius, put on solar panels - all those things that are good to do. So this is our little way of contributing and trying to lessen our footprint.”

For the ten-or-so extra dollars Ben and Kellie pay each month, their electric utility agrees to offset 100% of their household kilowatt hours with energy drawn from renewable energy resources – a combination of solar, wind, hydro, and landfill gas recapture. As a young family, they had found a simple and affordable way to reduce their impact, in the interest of helping the environment.

Don Mallinson's house, with 24 solar panels and many energy-saving features, each year produces more electric power than he uses.
Credit Don Mallinson

 Not many miles away in East Falmouth, Don Mallinson also had been counting his kilowatt hours. But he was taking a different approach. Instead of trying to jettison his electrical appliances, he had filled his house with them.

“Everything in the house is electric," he told me, standing in his front yard. "Heating, air conditioning, washer, dryer, cooking. Everything is electric – because I generate electricity, it doesn’t cost me money. I do not generate natural gas, I do not generate propane, I do not generate wood – I am one hundred percent electric!”

All of the electricity Mallinson uses to power his home comes from 24 solar panels on his roof. His house is “net zero.”  Which means, each year he creates more electricity than he can use.  

Walking around the outside, he pointed out features that made his house especially efficient: triple-paned casement windows, foot-thick walls, the asymmetrical roof.  Even the way the house was situated on the property. “Most houses are oriented to the road," he said. "My house is oriented to the sun. I don’t care where the road is, relative to the location of the house.”

Mallinson and his wife were living in a condo in Rhode Island, both in their seventies, when they decided to relocate to Falmouth and build an energy efficient home. They had never done anything like it before. Mallinson designed the house himself, doing extensive research online. 

Inside, it feels like a typical modern home. The kitchen is outfitted with new stainless steel appliances. It’s in the utility room that you find the specialized equipment – a heat recovery unit, and a dryer that doesn’t vent to the outside. Mallinson pointed to a small flat box mounted to the wall, with a digital read-out: his electric on-demand hot water heater. “Is it the most energy efficient thing?" he said. "Perhaps gas operated would be quicker. But again, I don’t generate gas, I generate electricity – so it’s a freebie.”

When I asked if all this meant he was “off the grid,” Mallinson laughed and explained that he needs the power grid, and the grid needs him. In the summer, when he is producing surplus electricity, his power is helping to meet the increased demand regionwide, as many people run air-conditioners and dehumidifiers.  In the winter, short days and the low angle of the sun mean for a few months he’s producing less electricity than he uses.  Then he’s drawing on the grid for the surplus credit he made in the summer.

To really live off the grid, a person has to produce and store his own electricity.

In search of this rare accomplishment, I traveled to Wellfleet to meet Chuck Cole. Cole has been living off the grid since the mid-1980s. To show me his system, he led the way through woods to where his battery was plugged into a single solar panel.

He bent down to check how it was charging, and announced: “I have twelve-three in the battery now. It’s only making one amp. But even on a cloudy day it’s making an amp - that’s something. But on a sunny day it’ll be making five, six amps.”

This awareness of how much energy your daily life requires, in real numbers, is a common thread here, right? But for Cole, it’s even more critical. For his daily electrical use, he doesn’t have a fallback. He lives in a series of small structures in the woods. There’s an old shack, painted blue, that serves as his kitchen, and yurts (round low buildings, which he made himself). One is a bedroom. Another is a sauna. He heats them with wood.

Chuck Cole lives in a series of small structures, which he heats with wood and powers with a single solar panel.
Credit Chuck Cole

 Managing his electricity means shuffling around 55-lb deep-cycle marine batteries.

In his kitchen he reached for the lamp and switched it on, demonstrating.  “I have one [battery] here that feeds this and that structure over there – that yurt, my first yurt. I can put on the light at night.”   

Because Chuck doesn’t want to cut down any trees, he’s dependent on bringing the batteries one at a time to the solar panel that’s about a hundred yards up the trail. In the winter he hauls the heavy batteries over the snow on a sled. In the summer he’ll push them in an old baby carriage.  

The batteries don't charge fast.

“It takes a couple-three days," he told me. "Then it takes a couple-three days for me to use it up, depending on how much I light, or how much I charge. And when the light goes out, I go up and switch the battery out.”

He has made this choice to live simply – and that means he has to know, intimately, what his daily energy impact is, in a way that few of us do.

“If I was really serious about it," he said, "I would put in more solar panels and cut down trees – but I don’t have to, because I’m not using that much. That’s the freedom I end up with.”

To many, Cole’s choice might seem extreme.

Still, it must be a sign of progress that when it comes to energy use, there are so many ways to lessen your impact on the environment. 

This report is the 2nd in a 10-part series about our energy system, called, “Power Source: Where People and Energy Connect.” 

Listen to other stories in the series.