You Don’t Need the Green New Deal to Save on Energy Costs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the implications of the Green New Deal, a proposal backed by several congressional Democrats that would essentially ban all fossil fuel use by the year 2030. Since then, a resolution outlining the GND’s principles has been introduced, and has generated plenty of debate, even though it’s a non-binding resolution—meaning it’s just a commitment to ideas, not actual legislation.

One of the idea’s more overlooked provisions is a commitment to “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency.” Like most of the rest of the plan, this idea would be extraordinarily expensive. The resolution has no chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has no plans to bring it for a floor vote.

But if you’re interested in the idea of saving some money on your utility bills, you don’t need to wait for a sweeping law overhauling the country’s energy sector. There are practical steps you can take now.

For ideas on how to do that, I spoke with Hannah Bastian, a research analyst with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). I asked her to give me some tips that 1) are broadly applicable for many homeowners and 2) are easy to do and 3) cost little or nothing.

Granted, every home has different heating and cooling systems, different appliances, etc. So not every one of these might apply. But hopefully this list will spark at least one or two ideas that can trim your monthly energy bills.

Don’t overheat your hot water. If you’re like me and never even checked the temperature setting on your water heater, you might be using more natural gas (or propane, or electricity) than you need. If yours is set on “high,” try dialing it back a bit. Odds are your showers will still feel hot. Note also that most water heaters have a “vacation” setting that lowers the temperature while you’re away from home. That’s a no-brainer way to avoid wasting money.

Get more savings out of your thermostat. Everyone knows that turning the heat down a bit in the winter (or cutting back the air conditioner in the summer) cuts utility bills. But knowing doesn’t necessarily mean doing. A recent survey by the Department of Energy found that 40% of households set their thermostat to one temperature and mostly leave it there. That can be costly, because according to ACEEE, turning down your thermostat by one degree in the winter saves about 2% on your heating bill. Now, I’m not advising anyone to freeze for the sake of saving money. But whether you have a manual thermostat, a programmable one or a smart, web-connected one, you can shave your gas, propane or power bill by lowering the temperature a bit when you’re away or asleep at night.

Consider LED light bulbs. Light emitting diodes are far more energy-efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs, and their prices have dropped substantially. (Also, unlike compact fluorescent bulbs, they don’t contain toxic mercury.) So, if you haven’t shopped for them lately, take another look. My quick search online at Home Depot, Lowes and Amazon found plenty of LED bulbs that equal the light output of a 60-watt incandescent, use less than 10 watts of power and cost less than $3 a bulb if you buy packs of four or more. That’s more than an incandescent, but LEDs last for many years, and their energy savings will pay for their upfront cost quickly in light fixtures that you use frequently. ACEEE’s Bastian recommends buying LEDs that have the government’s EnergyStar certification to make sure you’re getting a bulb that performs as advertised. (In a future Energy Alert, I’ll take a closer look at LEDs and what buyers should know about them.)

Plug electronics into a smart power strip, which will ensure they’re completely shut down when not on, rather than in power-wasting standby mode, while still powering always-on gear such as Wi-Fi routers. New power strips even come with remote controls for easy activation. For example, you could kill power to your HDTV, Blu-ray player, stereo and other entertainment systems when they’re not in use, while still running your internet modem. Some smart power strips cost less than $30.

Change your furnace filter. If, like many Americans, you heat your home with a furnace that circulates warm air through ducts, you can kill two birds with one stone. Regularly changing the furnace’s air filter will reduce the electricity the fan uses to blow the warm air (since a clean filter creates less resistance than a dirty one), and you’ll reduce the risk of mechanical problems with the system down the road. If you have an older HVAC system, it can pay to have a technician perform a system checkup and maintenance every year or two, both to ensure it’s running efficiently and to help it last longer.

Check for drafts during the winter. Drafts waste money during summer and winter, but they’re easier to feel when it’s cold out. Some cheap weather stripping can conserve some of the valuable heat a leaky window may be costing you. And identifying drafty spots now can come in handy if you’re planning a home renovation project later: You’ll be able to point out trouble spots to your contractor.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for energy-saving ideas. If you have suggestions that you use yourself, feel free to share them in the comments section online, or drop me an e-mail. In future issues, I’ll be looking at other strategies and technologies for cutting energy usage that consumers may want to know about.