Save Energy, Skip the Insanity

Don’t have time to render earwax for cooking fuel? Neither do we.

| November-December 2008

You’ve switched to compact fluorescent bulbs, put your TV on a power strip, and checked your windows for leaky seals. The next echelon of saving energy at home, however, often seems to mean one of two things: purchasing appliances with top-notch Energy Star ratings or implementing ambitious but impractical strategies—like converting washing machines to bicycle power and grinding flour with your fists.

The truth is we don’t all have ever-expanding pocketbooks or the living space, free time, and gumption required to go off grid. What we do have is a keen interest in doing what we can. Here, then, courtesy of the Utne Reader library, are a host of practical, low-tech, “next stage” solutions that will facilitate a more ecofriendly lifestyle at home.

An easy place to start is that energy-abusing conventional stove. For dishes you’d simmer over the burner or hand off to a Crock-Pot, a hot-box cooker is a simple, low-energy alternative. ReNew (July-Sept. 2008) suggests using a large wicker basket stuffed with old blankets. Heat your cuisine fossil-fuel style until it’s evenly hot, then transfer the tightly lidded pot to the box and pack in the blankets so heat can’t escape. Over the next six to eight hours, your meal will cook and remain insulated until you’re ready to eat. For type-A eco-chefs, a pressure cooker cuts time by about 70 percent, reports Clean Slate (Spring 2008). Utne Reader’s sister publication Natural Home (Sept.-Oct. 2008) named it a kitchen essential, and if there’s another way to cook delicious potatoes in just four minutes, we haven’t tasted it.

Alternatives to electric lighting are numerous, but not all are ecofriendly options. Most candles, for example, emit scores of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), warns the Ecologist (Feb. 2008). VOCs are those nasty carcinogenic buggers that also seep from traditional wall paint. BackHome (Sept.-Oct. 2008) suggests lighting lamps and candles made from renewable fuels such as vegetable oils and beeswax—they release a minuscule amount of pollutants, but ample ambience.

Freezers siphon a steady stream of energy, double as much if you have a basement unit for extra storage. A solar dryer preserves your prized harvest with no risk of freezer burn, but commercial brands are expensive and homemade versions touted in a lot of magazines seem to require a master’s degree in industrial arts. It is possible for mere mortals to build their own, though—quickly and painlessly, using materials such as cardboard and plastic wrap. Mother Earth News, another of Utne’s sibling publications, has instructions for a cheap, easy-to-make solar dehydrator online (

If rising energy costs inspire you to wean yourself further, consult the 10th edition of Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living (Sasquatch, 2008). While some plans require a bit of elbow grease, many of the suggestions are as simple as they are instantly gratifying, like turning on a strategically placed fan to cool your home. At the end of the day, costliness and exhaustive effort don’t have to be the norm for energy-saving solutions. Whether you live in a one-bedroom apartment or out on the prairie, stick that casserole in a hot box and watch the pennies fall from your energy bill.

Richard Witty
12/7/2008 8:48:13 AM

In the states, there are four primary uses of energy via fossil fuels: 1. Transportation (includes commercial and personal) - maybe 40% of total 2. Space heating and other building needs (includes commercial/industrial and personal) - maybe 30% of total 3. Industrial (maybe 15% of needs) 4. Electrical generation (maybe 15% of needs) All of the four areas of usage may be effected by looking at/and changing social energy use through five lenses: 1. Improve technology (Example, drive a vehicle that realizes double the mileage per fuel) 2. Improve social utilization (Example, drive on average twice the number of passengers) 3. Change the geographic scale (Example, drive half the distance to work) 4. Change the physical scale (Example, live in a home that is 1/2 the cubic volume) 5. Simplify and/or use public assets The effects are multiplicative (both positively and negatively), define a methodology for changes in individual behavior (ie choice of car to drive or where to work), innovation in enterprise (electric vehicles or collective transit), and public policy (policies that effect land use patterns, investment in public infrastructure). With determination, my personal sense is that modern society can reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by 80% over a thirty year period, while maintaining the same (or better) quality of life.

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