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Mike & Catherine Tidwell Fighting Climate Change One House at a Time


It's a lovely, breezy, autumn day, temperature in the forties, not a cloud in the sky. Inside my house I set the heating system at a toasty 72 degrees then reach for a cold beer from the refrigerator while turning the television to an American football game. Later I'll unwind with a hot, steaming bath while listening to classical music CDs.

Just another glorious day of modern Western life -- and profligate energy use -- leading inexorably to runaway global warming, right?

Wrong. All but a tiny fraction of my household energy budget comes from renewable, CO2-neutral sources. The electricity arrives from photovoltaic panels on the roof, the heating from a temperature-controlled pot-belly stove that burns corn kernels and warms my entire suburban home, and the hot water from a separate rooftop panel that converts sunlight to infrared heat.

Obviously, I'm a very wealthy man to be able to afford such extravagant gadgets. Everyone knows that amazingly effective renewable-energy technologies are out there. The problem is that average people -- the very people who need to change if we're ever going to stabilize the climate -- simply can't afford them. Right?

Wrong again. In my case, I'm a hopelessly middle-class, self-employed writer with a four-year-old son. No rich uncle died allowing me and my wife Catherine to become self-indulgent techno nerds. And we didn't scrape together years worth of savings to make this dream come true. We made all of our energy changes abruptly, within the past year, and now we're spending the handsome sum of -- get this -- $9.50 per month to pay for them. That's all. For 31 cents a day, with no help from friends or relatives, we've gotten off the planet's back almost entirely at our home. And here's the best part: Most of these planet-saving technologies are available and affordable right now for any American homeowner willing to do a little bit of research, borrow a modest sum of money, and spend that money wisely.

For Catherine and me, last January's bombshell findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change motivated us strongly to plot our home energy revolution. Planetary warming of 10.4 degrees by 2100 is doubly horrifying each time you look down at your innocent son playing with building blocks on the carpet. We knew that the modest targets of the Kyoto protocol wouldn't pass muster, either. Most scientists believe the world's CO2 emissions must drop 80 percent below current levels to stabilize the climate.

So that became our goal: 80 percent. If we could cut our household CO2 emissions by that amount -- or at least by 50% -- we would have done our part. It was the least we could do in a nation where our government aggressively sabotages even modest international efforts to stem climate change. If our leaders won't lead, we Americans owe it to the rest of the world to get the job done on our own, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.

So Catherine and I developed a budget: $7,500. That's what we would spend, no more. Being of modest means, we had to borrow the money in the form of a home equity loan.

Our very first investment was a book called Homemade Money, published by the Rocky Mountain Institute for people wanting to save money through improved energy use. The first step, we learned, was to eliminate unnecessary energy consumption and to use more efficiently the energy you can't live without. So we switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, bought an extremely high efficiency refrigerator (it consumes less than half the electricity of our previous 10-year-old unit) and we began drying our clothes on a line. With these and other painless changes, including never ever illuminating an unoccupied room, we cut our electricity use a remarkable 50 percent from 3760 kilowatt hours in the year 2000 to an annual rate of around 1900 kilowatt hours now.

With our electricity demand now well trimmed, it became plausible to meet at least part of that demand with our own solar generation. And here's where we encountered the first of several big and pleasant surprises: we could go solar, in a very big way, even on a very tight budget. We quickly learned that our state of Maryland offers $3,600 grants toward solar photovoltaic systems plus a deduction of 15% of the cost of the system from our state income tax. Grant in hand, we then went shopping for solar panels and got another big surprise: A solar advocacy organization in our region - the Virginia Alliance for Solar Electricity -- was heavily discounting the price of panels thanks to a subsidy from the US Department of Energy. Taking advantage of both of these programs (both open to all homeowners in Maryland, by the way) and installing much of the system ourselves, we were suddenly able to realize our greatest dream: 36 solar panels on our south-facing roof generating all of our electricity.

Amazingly, having tackled the big hurdle of electricity, we had almost half of our original $7,500 budget still in hand to apply to our next big challenge: heating our house. We knew from research that a typical American household spends a third of its total energy budget heating and cooling the home. As for cooling, our sturdy old house has high ceilings, partial shading from trees, and a nice sleeping porch, so we get by with ceiling fans. But the winters can be cold and we spend up to $200 a month heating with natural gas. Given that our house was already well insulated, there could be no new savings through conservation. So we had to find a new source of heat.

But what would that be? Thankfully, a small company in Hutchinson, Minnesota answered the question. Twelve years ago, ex-farmer Mike Haefner, president of American Energy Systems, engineered the first ever corn-burning stove designed to heat modern homes. Sales were flat until last year when rising fuel prices and growing concerns about the environment increased company sales 500 percent. This relatively small and easy-to-install stove easily heats a two-thousand square foot home (ours is 1600 square feet) and comes with a thermostat for extra convenience. The stove can store up to three days worth of corn in a side bin and self-loads the corn with a low-energy electric auger. All you have to do is set the stove to the heating level you want and enjoy the radiant heat.

Burning corn contributes almost nothing to global warming. Like all plant material, corn absorbs CO2 as it grows, and, with this stove, the corn burns so efficiently that the net CO2 released is negligible. Moreover, corn is much cheaper than natural gas -- we'll save more than $500 per winter -- and it's easily purchased even by big-city dwellers at outlying feed stores, the closest being 30 minutes from my suburban Washington, DC home. (I'm currently forming a cooperative with other corn-burners in my neighborhood to buy from a nearby organic farmer who will make deliveries.) And corn is an almost endless energy source. Studies show American farmers can grow ten times more corn than is needed to meet all of America's energy needs. So it's good for farmers, good for the climate, easy to use, saves money. No brainer.

Even after all of these purchases -- fridge, bulbs, photovoltaic panels, stove -- we still had enough money to tackle our last major source of greenhouse gas: Heating our water. And here we got lucky. My local energy consultant stumbled across a used but perfectly good 5-year-old solar hot-water system and sold it to us installed for $1,000, thus closing out our expenditures at just over $7,500. The solar system "pre-heats" the water for our natural gas heater. Thus, on sunny days, all of our hot water comes from the sun and on cloudy days we get as much help from solar as we can and then the gas burners kick in to bring the temperature up to the 110 degrees we desire. We're thus guaranteed hot water year round no matter what the weather.

Solar hot-water systems sell new in the States starting at $3,500 installed, so we caught a big break by buying ours used, the only sweet deal in our mix of energy investments, however. Many U.S. states offer grants and tax credits for solar hot-water systems, and in sunny western states like Arizona, they pay for themselves in as little as three years.

Here's the bottom line: Except to cook our food with natural gas and heat our water on really cloudy days, we now contribute nothing to global warming through home energy use. In the process, we've reduced our estimated CO2 contribution from 19,488 pounds per year to just under 864, a drop of almost 96%. If every household in the industrialized world were to make only half of these changes we would be well on our way to solving global warming.

We also do very well by doing good. By conserving energy and switching to renewables we save an estimated $930 each year. That's $77.50 per month. Our monthly payment for the $7,500 loan is $87. The difference is just 31 cents a day, a minuscule price to help preserve the planet. And in ten years, when the loan is repaid, that $930 will go straight into our pockets.

But what are the drawbacks? Where's the catch? Surely such an abrupt switch from fossil fuels entails some sort of hidden sacrifices.

Actually, there are none. Yes, twice a week in the winter we have to reload the stove with corn. That takes about five minutes. And since the stove radiates heat, a room can only be warm if it's door is left open, meaning someone wanting an extended period of complete privacy might get a little chilly. Other than this, our lives of modern comfort are essentially unchanged.

Except for one more thing: We now live with greater hope for our son's future and that of the whole planet. If we can make such big changes so quickly and for so little money, the rest of the world, when it finally makes up its mind, can do the same.

(Mike Tidwell is a freelance writer Takoma Park, Maryland. He can be reached at

Budget: What We Bought

  • 1.5 kilowatt photovoltaic system (partially installed by author): $3,396
  • CO2-neutral corn-burning stove: $2,400
  • Solar hot-water system (used): $1,000
  • High-efficiency refrigerator: $750
  • 20 compact fluorescent light bulbs: $140
  • TOTAL: $7,686

How We Paid For It

  • $7,500 ten-year home equity loan at 7% interest rate. Monthly payment: $87.
  • Monthly energy savings: $77.50.
  • Final cost of converting our house almost entirely to renewable energy: 31 cents per day (until loan is paid off.)

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