Taming the Energy Hog

Taming the Energy Hog

Looking out my window and seeing the approach of winter puts me in a frame of mind to think about energy: where it comes from, how it’s made, and how much we Americans use.

For example, did you know that more than half of American homes are heated with natural gas? Government and energy industry leaders tell us that natural gas is abundant, clean-burning (compared to coal) and, best of all, domestic. That is, we don’t need Middle East oil to survive anymore, which puts the United States in a very secure energy position compared to oil shortages like those that occurred in 1970s.

Since 2001 and the discovery of massive natural gas fields in the Rocky Mountain West, as well as the South and East Coast, natural gas drilling has expanded so rapidly that the industry is running roughshod over environmental concerns, notably the effect that “fracking” has on drinking water reserves.


As you’ve probably read, fracking involves injecting water and sand, mixed with oil dilution chemicals, down into a potential gas well to free the natural gas from trapping or overlapping layers of rock or shale.

Compared to traditional methods for recovering natural gas, however, fracking (or hydrofracking) uses quite a bit more water, which leaves water resources polluted and raises the risk of toxicity not only among humans but animals, all up and down the food chain. In fact, in terms of environmental effects, natural gas may be only marginally better than coal in the long run.

Natural gas contains a high quantity of methane, as well as ethane, propane, butane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide. The latter three are also combustion byproducts from burning coal. This is not surprising when one considers the fact that natural gas is found in the same substrates as oil, and oil is the newer, liquid form of coal. In fact, coal gasification simply attempts to reverse a process Nature has perfected over millions of years.

Because refined natural gas is highly explosive, once it is “cleaned”, removing water and other impurities, producers add a substance called Mercaptan to insure that homeowners and others can detect gas leaks simply by the odor, which is described as smelling like rotten eggs.

In spite of the fact that natural gas is an abundant resource all across the U.S., prices for natural gas heating have not come down appreciably in the last few years. Industry experts say this is because the development of new techniques to harvest it and bring it to market are quite expensive, and gas field developers have to recoup their investment somehow.

In the interim, we can all do our part to conserve that relatively expensive natural gas heat. The first step, if your furnace is over 10 years old, might be to swap out that old oil furnace – which costs $1,723 a year to run at an AFUE rating of 80 percent – for a new 96-percent AFUE rated gas furnace, which will keep your family toasty for a mere $522 a heating year. AFUE, or annual fuel utilization efficiency, is a thermal efficiency metric used to rate furnaces or boilers.

The next step would be to close all evident gaps on exterior walls of your home. For example, a ¼-inch gap between an exterior door and the sill will leak as much heated air as a 2-inch diameter hole. Uninsulated or poorly insulated attics can add 20 percent to the average winter heating bill. Turning down the thermostat one degree, from 78 to 77, cuts natural gas usage by another 10 percent.

Because you’re eco-savvy, you already know that household electronics are energy hogs, using LCD displays to provide time and mode of operation, as well as an “always on” feature on modern televisions that makes the picture load faster when the set is turned on. But did you know that your dishwasher uses 80 percent of its energy heating water? In fact, a 40-gallon natural gas hot water heater costs only $252 a year, while a 40-gallon electric hot water heater will cost $440.

Even more surprising, in terms of electricity generated from natural gas at the power plant level, is the fact that refrigerators (in the U.S., at least) consume more than half the power generated by America’s nuclear plants, which provide 20 percent of the nation’s power. And indoor and outdoor lighting requires almost 20 percent of the electricity generated by all U.S. power plants.

At the rate population is growing, in 25 years we will need twice as much of everything: food, fuel, fabric and the like. Since we likely can’t double energy production in a quarter century, we will have to meet this demand gap by cutting back and using electricity more wisely. And if we start now, our children – and their children – will thank us for giving up our spendthrift ways and leaving enough resources so that they, too, can live without hardship.


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