Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Green Options Interview: Gary Reysa of the Half Plan

I've been busy with interviews over at Green Options. Here's my latest and one of my favorites:

Gary Reysa and his wife cut their energy use in half with their self-designed “Half Plan.” A retired airplane product development engineer from Boeing, Gary continues to satisfy his mechanical and creative curiosity with an array of efficiency and renewable energy projects at his home near Bozeman, MT.

I spoke with Gary by phone on April 5th.

Green Options: Why did you decide to cut your energy use in half?

Gary Reysa: I’m very concerned about global warming, and now that that I have a new grandchild, I see the impact it could have on future generations. It’s easy to get the feeling that there’s not much an individual can do, so my wife and I thought: What can we do? Could we make a significant cut in our energy use and global warming emissions? Could we cut it in half?

GO: How did you begin?

GR: The Half Plan seemed really ambitious to us at first. For one thing, we had no access to special technology. But I had begun some projects back around 2000 when we moved into our house and I started keeping track of our energy bills. When we officially began the Half Plan, we decided to do the projects that offered the most energy saving per dollar spent for our climate, house, skills, and habits.

GO: Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to just buy carbon offsets?

GR: I have mixed feelings about carbon offsets. I wouldn’t criticize anyone for doing it, but it’s just not for me. I do believe there are a lot of places in the world where you can spend a few bucks and get carbon reductions. But I feel like some people use them to get out of doing real action.

I feel better about doing something directly that reduces my carbon footprint. But even with the Half Plan, we still have to buy green power from Northwest Energy to make up for what we use. We’re not completely independent of the power grid.

GO: You said you didn’t have access to any special technology for cutting your energy use. Did that affect the execution of your plan?

GR: Not at all – once we started researching it, we found out that almost all the equipment we needed was actually available locally.

We did a lot of different projects to cut our energy in half. We bought a Toyota Prius, installed a solar water heater, energy-efficient light bulbs, better insulation in our attic, sealed up the windows, put our computers on power strips (shutting off the power strips stops the computer from continuing to “sip” electricity, even when it’s supposedly off) and installed dryer venting. And those are just a few of the projects.

GO: Has the Half Plan been very expensive?

GR: So far we’ve spent $8800. The single biggest expense has been the Toyota Prius - but it’s also been the single biggest energy savings and biggest cut to our global warming emissions. It cut our transportation energy use by about 60 percent! We thought we’d be making a sacrifice by buying a smaller car, but it’s been great and we use it for 85 percent of our driving. We do live in the snowy mountains, so we need bigger car with 4-wheel drive part of the time.

I factored in a $4000 cost for the Prius into the overall $8800 cost of the Half Plan, because $4000 is the premium we paid for the hybrid features. We were due to replace our old Outback vehicle anyway (it had 205,000 miles on it), so the decision was whether to buy a conventional or a hybrid car.

Our other big expenses included the solar projects. In fact, I just finished another big solar project, but I haven’t factored that into the cost yet. It's a solar space heating project that uses solar water heating collectors to provide space heating for the house. The collectors are on the south wall of our new garden shed. They heat water in a 500 gallon tank behind the shed which gets pumped to the house.

solar shedSolar collectors for space heating

GO: Have the savings outweighed the initial investments?

GR: The savings has been phenomenal. We’ve invested $8800 and I’ve calculated that we’ll save $4600 in energy costs and 20 tons in global warming pollution each year. The cost savings will continue to go up as electricity and fuel prices go up.

One really neat project has been making our computer use more energy efficient. Our two computers and related equipment use about 270 watts of power when turned on. We put all of it on power strips. At night, we hibernate the computers and then turn everything off with the power strip switch. During the day we have the computers set to hibernate if they are inactive for 15 minutes.

This saves a total of 1624 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, 3200 lbs of global warming emissions, and $162 per year! This just knocked me out.

GO: What was the Half Plan’s biggest surprise?

GR: The biggest surprise was that there were no surprises. It was pretty painless except for the money invested into the projects, but we’ve already earned a big chunk of it back in our first year of savings.

It was relatively easy to do these projects, too. We live pretty normally – as in we waste a lot of energy! – but we started paying more attention to how we use our energy. To me, it would be fall-off-the-log-easy for people to do this without sacrificing or paying much. It’s just a lack of focus that keeps it from happening.

GO: Now that you’ve found the Half Plan so easy to do, have you thought about cutting your energy even further?

GR: We plan to cut it in half again. This time we will have to use solar PV panels for our electricity, which has a higher cost and a slower return than our other projects. But I’m not doing this next phase for the financial return; I’m doing it to cut my carbon dioxide pollution that causes global warming.

GO: So the next half may not be so easy?

GR: We did the Half Plan without changing our lifestyle at all. But to cut our energy further, we’re going to have to make changes like drive less or bike more. That’s not a downfall for us, it just requires more work. There will certainly be lifestyle changes this time.

For example, we just got back from Hawaii. I felt guilty for spending 2500 lbs of CO2 to go! But I think if we’re going to get serious about making another 50 percent drop, then we will need to start thinking harder about trips like that.

GO: So how do you entertain yourself out in Big Sky country?

GR: I love the TV show Living with Ed. It's a reality show with Ed Begley Jr and it's about how he lives his green lifestyle with his wife in Studio City, CA. It makes technical sense, it’s very entertaining, and he really cares about the issue and lives his life accordingly.

For a good read, I’d recommend The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook by Godo Stoyke. It gives a long list of projects that people can do to cut their CO2 emissions and save money. It details the equipment needed, cost, return, energy saving, and carbon saving. I like the book so much I bought a second copy for our local library.

GO: Your website is a fantastic resource; very easy-to-understand information, graphs, and calculations. Any specific tips on how folks can get started on the Half Plan?

GR: At my website, Build It Solar, I have a Half Plan for People Who Like Plans and a Half Plan for People Who Don’t Like Plans, so folks can choose what works best for them.

I’m an engineer, and I know that simplicity is everything. When you have trouble with a design, it’s almost always because it’s too complex. For example, I found that the solar thermal designs are really simple and that anyone should be able to build it.

The other thing folks have to realize is that we are the problem. When you get mad about global warming, you have to look at yourself in the mirror. I read stuff on the Internet and I get the feeling that people are pointing fingers but aren’t identifying the problem as themselves. Instead, they want a quick fix or someone else to come along with the technology that will allow us to not have to do anything. And they feel comfortable about the fact that they’re not doing anything.

We’re the ones generating this problem, but that also makes it easy for us to do something about it. We’re in the driver’s seat to make drastic reductions. It’s easy to do. For example, efficiency is something you can implement quickly, and we can get a significant drop in emissions right away and painlessly. If enough people do that, we’ll have really made a difference.

GO: Do you think this can all really make an impact?

GR: My actual CO2 reduction is about 20 tons each year. If 100 million families did the same thing, the energy we would save we be about 25 percent of all of the U.S. CO2 emissions. That's huge! And the best part is that we know this can be done – with no help from new technology or George Bush. We can do this ourselves, right away.

Cross posted at Green Options.

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