Mainers spend $5.2 billion annually on imported fossil fuels — $3,849 for each man, woman, and child. Half of that, $2.6 billion, is spent on transportation fuel — $1,925 for each man, woman and child.
As long as our only option to get around is by car and we must maintain a car-supporting infrastructure, our individual options for savings are quite limited.
But 40% of the $5.2 billion, $2.1 billion, is spent on energy in our homes, mostly for heating. That’s $1,540 for each man, woman, and child, or $6,159 for a family of four — money that does nothing for Maine’s economy. Could we not spend it better?
What we do about this consumption, and whether we continue to emit 25.23 tons of carbon dioxide individually (18.3 million tons collectively), depends 100% on our individual decisions.
The price of petroleum is volatile, but long term (at least until very recently) it has been rising at an average annual rate of over 6.8%. Since we purchased our Damariscotta house in 2004, the price of a gallon of fuel oil has ranged from $2 to more than $3.90, presenting us with both a challenge and an opportunity.
The previous owners used 1,250 gallons of heating oil, costing, at $2 a gallon, $2,500. We decided to improve the house step by step, by: 1) conducting a professional home energy audit to determine what to do, 2) paying for each improvement from the savings realized from previous improvements, and 3) using the fluctuating cost of 1,250 gallons of oil as our benchmark by which to determine those savings.
With our home energy audit to guide us, we removed the weight and pulley system from all windows, replacing all single glass with double glazed sashes. We sealed and insulated the attic and the basement walls, replaced the basement bulkhead entrance with an enclosure over the stairs, and insulated and weatherstripped the outside doors. These measures reduced oil consumption from 1,250 to 915 gallons. The cost, now at $2.35 a gallon, came to $2,150, a $350 reduction.
We continued air sealing and also insulated the heating and hot water pipes. We added homemade interior storm panels to all windows, sealed and insulated the basement ceiling, and added a small “sun space” off the kitchen. These steps cut oil use to 800 gallons per winter — a 450-gallon reduction from our benchmark 1,250 gallons. However, the oil price by this time rose to $3.92 a gallon, replacing cost savings with an annual cost increase of $636 to $3,136.
It was time to get off oil heat, leaving the oil-fired system in place as a backup. We installed a wood pellet-burning fireplace insert, and burned 5.2 tons of pellets, costing $1,322, plus 60 gallons of oil costing $234 — for a total of $1,556 for heating, compared to $4,875, for our “had we done nothing” benchmark.
Over the following two winters, we achieved similar results but also found that as we aged, we’d rather not lug bags of pellets all winter long. Therefore, in spite of having saved $6,638 over the two winters, we decided to sell our pellet-burning insert (for its original purchase price) and convert to mini-split heat pump heating with an initial 4.1 kilowatts of solar panels on the roof.
That winter, we burned $212 worth of oil and used 4,178 kilowatt hours of electricity — at 0.158 = $660 — for heating, a total of only $872. That’s an annual savings of $4,001 compared to our benchmark.
Taking stock after 10 years of gradual improvements, we spent $3,400 on winterizing materials, $3,797 on heat pumps, and $11,981 (net after the 30% federal tax credit) on our rooftop solar PV system — a total of $19,178. Our 2005-2014 cumulative annual fuel cost reductions (versus 1250 gallons of oil) came to $17,176, leaving a net balance of $2,002. Not bad for all we gained.
Since then, we have expanded the solar array to 5.2 kilowatts, the maximum our rooftop and inverter could accommodate. Now we annually consume around 9,350 kilowatt hours of electricity, heating and cooling included, but purchase only around 6,600 kilowatt hours. The rest is off the roof. Our annual electric bill has been under $1,050 — an annual saving of about $2,350, versus our original 1250-gallon oil benchmark.
Here’s my takeaway from this story: As an energy auditor, I heard people complain that they “could not afford” to invest in efficiency improvements yielding significant long-term cost savings. But how can anyone paying for a winter’s worth of heating plead “can’t afford” to investing the same amount in better heating solutions?
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which works to promote environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)