When talking about energy conservation, I hold this vision of rewinding our usage all the way back to the source: flicking a switch and traveling to the place where the energy is made. In over half the country, that primary source is a coal-fired plant. Coal plants are not only one of the greatest sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, they are also our largest source of mercury contamination and a major air pollutant.
Coal plants are always located near bodies of water. In my town, the coal plant—one of the dirtiest in the nation—is located right beside our primary source of drinking water—the Kansas River. I have no words for what it feels like to see the sludging pools where the coal plant cools its sediment and know that muck is going right back into my water.
I care about becoming more energy efficient in order to reduce costs, but I care even more about efficiency as a means of reducing the amount of coal that gets burned—thereby keeping my air, soil and water clean and my loved ones and myself healthy.
My mentor Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism Solutions calls efficiency our first renewable energy resource. She's right—and I should have been a lot more discriminating in the tips I rattled off about "going green." There are certain actions that have a significantly greater impact than others.
I reasoned if folks embraced one tip, they'd jump on the bandwagon and embrace all the others. But that's not exactly how most of us are wired. We humans suffer from something psychologists call "single action bias," which basically means once we've done one thing, we're tempted to check an issue off our list and move on. Instead of asking you to rewire your brains (I'm saving that for my book), I want to share the areas where you can have the greatest impact. So if you are only doing one thing, you'll know how much of a difference it really makes.
Researchers Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern have made this easy. Their incredible study, "The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Climate Change," details the impact our most common household items have on the environment. The single biggest energy hog within the home is the car, which accounts for almost 40 percent of the energy used in our lives. You can reduce the impact you have in this area by buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, carpooling and making sure your ride is tuned up and running at its best.
What I am especially concerned with here are the electricity hogs that keep us burning coal. The hungriest devices are the ones that heat and cool our homes (which account for 25 percent of the energy used), warm our water (6.5 percent) and light up our lives (about 6 percent).
I had already swapped out my incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents and turned down my thermostat. Changing the temperature in your home is made significantly easier by getting a programmable device. I consulted the Consumer Reports Greener Choices website and went with a mercury-free Lux thermostat . I could never have expected salivating over a thermostat or rope caulk— Frost King is a good first resource when it comes to weather-stripping—until I became a homeowner. Nor could I have fathomed that high-efficiency appliances would make my mouth water. Well, they do.
My first big appliance purchase was a Bosch dishwasher on clearance at Sears . I was raised on Sears, and they will continue to factor into my story going forward. So much so, I used to joke about my "Sears boyfriend" Zack when I first started my homeowner journey.
Bosch was another deliberate choice. Not only because of the rave reviews from all my design-minded friends, but because of the longevity of their products. I want energy heifers, not energy hogs. Bosch was also my choice for a washer and dryer because they offer some of the most energy- and water-efficient front-loading washers on the market. Front loaders, on the whole, are more efficient than top-loaders. My washer and dryer have eco-action features that extend the time but reduce the temperature of my loads—thus using 20 percent less energy, according to Bosch. What I find especially encouraging is that the company has started to consider the energy generated over the entire life cycle of its products—from manufacturing and shipping all the way to disposal.
These items are not cheap. I need and want them to last. And I want to support companies who share my concerns for people and the planet. With a little patience and knack for research, you can find the ones that resonate with you, too.
Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit SimranSethi.com and follow her on Twitter @ simransethi .