Power Trip: Oil Dependence, and 10 Steps to Green Your Life

A few months before BP’s disastrous oil spill, a book called Power Trip landed on my desk. Thoroughly researched by writer Amanda Little, the book takes us across America, chronicling the history of our deep reliance on oil. In light of what’s happened, this fascinating book should now be a must read…not only to understand the ways in which fossil fuel consumption has shaped us, but what we can now do to lessen (or even end) our dependence on this dwindling resource.

Love, gp

From Power Trip

It’s hard to see a silver lining emerging from the BP oil spill. Brown scum now covers a marine ecosystem the size of Wyoming, killing vast swaths of coral reefs and threatening hundreds of bird, fish, marine mammal and plant species. Thousands of shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen are out of work. Tourism along the Gulf is devastated. And the leak continues to surge.

There’s no question that we’re facing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. But this crisis also offers a powerful call to action, and I believe it’s seeding the early stages of a nationwide awakening. Americans are coming to terms with both the challenges of our oil dependence, and the opportunities that lie ahead—for change, renewal, and innovation.

Over the past two months, the spill has revealed the extreme but hidden risks of our oil usage. We have been quick to blame the greed and incompetence of BP and government regulators, but most of us have been slow to recognize our own roles, as consumers, in the catastrophe. The plain truth is that if we weren’t demanding so much oil, the industry wouldn’t be going to such extreme lengths to get it.

Even today, few of us understand how large our appetite for oil truly is. In a single day, Americans consume nearly 800 million gallons of oil—about 20 times more than the total estimated volume of crude that has spilled into the Gulf so far. Each of us, on average, consumes about 30 percent more oil everyday than the average European, and roughly 40 percent more oil per day than the average citizen of Japan.

America’s hunger for oil, like our appetite for fast food, has spawned a kind of obesity epidemic—but one that we can’t see in visible pounds of flesh. Oil is the thread from which our modern lives dangle, but it is an invisible thread—a substance harvested mostly in foreign lands and pumped through underwater pipelines. Once burned, it disperses invisibly into the atmosphere.

The very fact that we can’t see the consequences of our oil consumption has created a fantasy of sorts—that we can live energy-lavish lifestyles without experiencing any negative effects. The Gulf spill, if only temporarily, has punctured the myth: Images of oil floating like a funeral shroud over thousands of square miles of ocean, coating the corpses of egrets and dolphins, gives an emotional texture to a substance that remains a mystery to most of us.

Even though we rarely think about it, energy is as much a part of our modern survival as air, food, and water. It does more than power our iPhones and laptops, it grows our crops, fights our wars, makes our plastics and medicines, warms our homes, moves our products, airplanes and vehicles, and animates our cities.

I spent the last decade writing about energy and environmental policy—much of that time criticizing politicians and industry leaders for keeping us hooked on dirty fuels and failing to promote cleaner alternatives.

Then one morning I realized that I was as much to blame as everyone else. I took a spontaneous tour of my office, counting the things in my midst that were, in one way or another, tied to fossil fuels.

Since nearly all plastics, polymers, inks, paints, fertilizers, and pesticides are made from oil-derived chemicals, and all products are delivered to market by trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, there was virtually nothing in my office—my body included—that wasn’t there because of fossil fuels.

There I sat at a desk made of Formica (a plastic), wearing a sweatshirt made of fleece (a polymer), over yoga pants made from Lycra (ditto), sipping coffee shipped from Zimbabwe, eating an apple trucked from Washington, surrounded by walls covered with oil-derived paints, jotting notes in petroleum-derived ink, typing words on a petrochemical keyboard into a computer powered by coal plants. Even the supposedly guilt-free whole-grain cereal I had for breakfast and the veggie burger I ate for lunch came from crops treated with oil-derived fertilizers.

My purse yielded another trove of specimens: capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol made from acetaminophen (a substance, like many commercial pain relievers, that is refined from oil); glossy magazines and a packet of photographs printed with petrochemicals; mascara, lip balm, eyeliner, and perfume that, like most cosmetics, have key components derived from oil.

I began to see that this thing I’d thought was a nasty word—oil—was actually the source of many creature comforts I use and love, and many survival tools I need.

But if fossil fuels are a part of everything we do, how do we go about removing them from the picture? How can we kick our addiction to fossil fuels, given its sheer magnitude?

I set out on a one-year journey across America to find answers to these questions. I traveled from deep sea oil rigs to Kansas cornfields, from the catacombs of the Pentagon to NASCAR speedways, from the guts of New York City’s electrical grid to a plastic surgery operating room, and into the laboratories creating the innovations of tomorrow’s green economy.

Over the course of this journey I discovered how cheap oil and coal built the American superpower, and why our greatest strength has became our greatest vulnerability. I met pioneers who are innovating solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, advanced plastics, smart grid components, and green buildings. I began to see how American ingenuity led us down the path of fossil fuel dependence, and how that same ingenuity could change our future course—leading us to an actual, factual “green” future free from fossil fuels.

—adapted from Power Trip

Ten Energy and Climate Savers

Renewable power, clean cars, local and seasonal foods, green homes—these and other solutions to our energy crisis are evolving fast. But we can’t leave it up to innovators alone to push progress. It’s our job as consumers to adopt these solutions and bring them into the mainstream. We also need to become more conscious and efficient in the way we use energy.

Ghandi said that the earth provides enough resources to satisfy the needs of humanity, but not the greed of humanity. Today, most of us live in energy-greedy homes and drive energy-greedy cars. We don’t intend to, but we’re simply, unwittingly relying on old, polluting technologies.

The Gulf oil spill can motivate us to embrace efficiency and newer, cleaner, safer technologies. The following steps, assembled with the help of Kateri Callahan of The Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) and listed in no particular order, will help you shift your lifestyle from energy-lavish to energy-lean.

1. Screw The Right Thing

The simplest thing you can do to cut your electricity demands—and get the biggest environmental bang for your buck—is swap out your old incandescent light bulbs for those swirly bulbs known as CFLs (or compact fluorescents). They cost a bit more than conventional bulbs up front, but they’re 75 percent more efficient, and last 10 times as long. You end up saving between $55 and $65 over the life of the bulb. And don’t believe the myth that CFLs are harsh or unflattering to the eye—the technology has evolved and the current models on the market give off warm and mellow light. (The common mistake is that people buy CFLs that are too bright—read the label to be sure you’re buying the right wattage.)

If every home in America switched out one incandescent bulb for a CFL, we would save $600 million in avoided energy costs. In terms of CO2 savings, it would be the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road.

2. Seal the Deal

The biggest energy-guzzler in our lives isn’t our cars, it’s our homes. Air conditioning, hot water, refrigeration, cooking appliances, lighting—all this adds up to serious energy demands. Your house emits roughly double the amount of CO2 as the car in your driveway.

Reason No. 1: It leaks. Most homes—especially old ones—have cracks in the walls and seams, they have poorly insulated attics, cellars, and doorjambs. Sealing up those cracks—caulking, weather stripping, and insulating—can improve your home’s efficiency by 20 percent or more.

Windows also leak warmth in the wintertime and cool air in the summer. Installing Low-E or Energy Star windows can lower your energy bills by an additional 30 percent.

Visit the web page of your local utility to find experts who can help you seal up your home. Also check out Simply Insulate.

3. Pimp Your House

If you have the budget for it, investing in the best Energy Star appliances—furnaces, boilers, refrigerators, washer/dryers, dishwashers, televisions, and so forth—pays off quickly. These models get anywhere from 20-50 percent better efficiency than conventional appliances.

A great first step is wrapping your water boiler with insulation. (Your air conditioner is the biggest energy guzzler in your home; your water boiler comes in second.) Another great step is buying a programmable thermostat, which automatically dials down your AC while you are out of the house or sleeping. That typically costs $100 with installation, and pays for itself in energy savings in under three months. Most home-improvement stores have experts that can guide you through these steps.

The Department of Energy offers a $1,500 tax incentive for investments in energy-efficient homes and appliances. Visit Energy Tax Incentive to learn more about the federal payback you can get for greening your home.

4. Tap the Earth

Solar panels are sexy, but many of us can’t afford them or don’t have the right sun exposure on our roofs. For anyone with a yard, a lesser-known and more affordable kind of renewable energy is geothermal.

A system of pipes is embedded in your yard roughly 20 feet below ground, where the earth stays at a year-round temperature of between 50 and 70 degrees. Fluid in the pipes absorbs the ground temperature and is pumped back into the house. That keeps the house the same temperature as the earth, taking pressure off of boilers and air-conditioning units—all year round they only have to heat or cool the home from a steady baseline temperature of about 57 degrees. A typical geothermal system costs several thousand dollars, but it pays back quickly in energy savings.

5. Get to the Meat of It

Meat guzzles energy: Livestock consume roughly 18 pounds of grains for every one pound of meat they produce. Growing those gains takes fossil fuels. Typically livestock at industrial farms eat corn feed, which is usually loaded with petrochemical fertilizers. Another factor to consider is the energy-intensive refrigeration used during the transport and storage of meat. (Refrigeration isn’t necessary for grains and beans.)

Farm animals also produce a lot of poop, which in turn releases methane (a greenhouse gas). When you total up the energy used for feed and transportation, plus the associated methane release, livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day per capita—roughly twice the global average. One expert quoted in the New York Times said that “if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan—a Camry, say—to the ultra-efficient Prius.” If you eat meat, try designating one or more meat-free days a week.

6. GYO (Grow-Your-Own) Food

Much of the commercial produce grown and sold in the United States travels at least 1,500 miles from farm to market. That’s not counting the distance traveled by tropical and off-season fruits such as bananas, pineapples, mangos, and berries. Buying local and seasonal produce cuts down on the energy used to your transport food. (Beware of local food grown in greenhouses, which can use lots of energy for climate control.)

The most energy-conscious way to eat is from your own garden, which eliminates even the miles traveled to your market. Now in early summer, it’s the perfect time of year to start an edible garden if you haven’t already. Till up a section of your yard, add compost, and plant some veggies, herbs and fruits. It won’t take more than an afternoon to get started. If you don’t have a back yard or front yard, plant on your porch in Earth Boxes. GYO food is delicious, nutritious, fragrant, beautiful and climate-positive—win-win-win, and then some.

7. R-Rated

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—these practices don’t just save resources, they slash energy use. Consider plastic: The fossil fuels used to manufacture plastics account for roughly 5 percent of total annual U.S. energy consumption. That may not sound like much, but it translates into the energy equivalent of billions of gallons of oil. Producing plastic products from recycled materials rather than from scratch uses much less energy.

Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy required to produce aluminum from raw materials. Recycling a single pound of steel saves enough energy to light a conventional light bulb for 26 hours. Recycling a ton of glass saves the equivalent of about nine gallons of fuel. An added climate benefit of recycling is that it cuts methane emissions from landfills. Visit Recycle Bank for info on the most innovative recycling methods in the US.

8. Dial Back Your Miles

Each American, on average, uses about 550 gallons of gasoline a year—nearly four times more than the average European. Why? We tend to drive more miles and use less public transit. The average American driver travels between 30 and 40 miles per day or nearly 14,000 miles a year—the distance around the equator every two years.

If you don’t have good public transportation options in your city, try telecommuting once a week to your office. As internet connections get faster and more widely available, it’s easier plug in to meetings via Skype and iChat, connect to your company’s e-mail and file-sharing system, and transfer phone calls automatically from your office to your home.

9. Drive Smarter

The smartest move you could make to reduce your fuel economy is swap out your car for a more efficient model. But most of us can’t afford to make this switch immediately. Here are a few tips on improving your car’s efficiency: Keep your tires inflated—that can improve your gas mileage by about 5 percent (any gas-station attendant can help you with this). Also, when possible, slow down on the highway: Your fuel efficiency decreases rapidly above 60 miles per hour.

Try to avoid rapid breaking and acceleration—it uses a lot more gas than smooth driving. If it’s comfortable, roll down your windows rather than opting for AC. And if you’re carrying useless stuff in your trunk, get rid of it—the extra load drags down your fuel mileage. More info at Driver Smarter Challenge.

10. Infrequent Flying

The average domestic airplane gets about 85 miles per gallon per person—that’s great compared to the average fuel economy of our cars (roughly 25 miles per gallon). But the distances we travel by air are far greater than those we travel by road.

Last month I flew about 15,000 miles—that translates to a personal consumption of hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. Here again, we have a great argument for telecommuting to work—and for that matter, taking a “staycation.” Instead of jumping on a plane to visit relatives or a resort, opt to stay at home one weekend or holiday per season. Without all the travel stress, you will personally feel more relaxed and energized, to boot.

Amanda Little has published widely on the environment, energy and technology for more than a decade. Her columns on green politics and innovation have appeared in Grist.org, Salon.com and Outside magazine. Her articles have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, New York, O Magazine and the Washington Post. She lives with her husband and daughter in Nashville, Tennessee. For more on Amanda Little and her book POWER TRIP: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy, visit Amanda little and follow her on twitter.