In the spirit of Dickens, waste less this Christmas

Ah, Christmas — one of the most beloved holidays ’round the world. There’s nothing like spending quality time with loved ones, giving (and receiving!) gifts, and the smell of your choice of decadent deliciousness roasting in the oven.

But did you know that most of what we consider to be “normal” Christmas behavior is a relatively modern invention?

Back in the day, spreading holiday tidings used to consist of merry carolers roaming from house to house. This practice of “wassailing” was sometimes rejected as a sin by the Puritans, because it often was accompanied by debauchery and raucousness.

Fast forward to the the 19th century, where author Charles Dickens and his famous novella, A Christmas Carol, resurrected and popularized the sentiment of being charitable toward those less fortunate (and not so wasteful and greedy) during the Christmas season.

In fact, the invention of the modern concept of Christmas is widely (yet somewhat erroneously) attributed to Dickens. But we can generally credit him for influencing many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit — lots and lots of generosity.

As for so many of you, Christmas is the holiday where an entire side of my family gets together — somewhere between 20 and 30 people. When large groups of people get together, you know what happens: we consume large quantities of energy!

So, being the energy-efficient steward that I am, I thought, “Where can my family save energy?” (And yours, too, of course.) Here are a few suggestions:

1. LIGHTING & HEATING

If you eat (or are entertaining) early enough, use as much natural light as you can! If you don’t have windows, see how many lights you really need to turn on. Candles can help create a homey and festive atmosphere while conserving electricity.

If you use incandescent Christmas lights, consider switching to LEDs, which use a fraction of the electricity, and will almost certainly be heavily discounted right after the holidays. Get a deal, pack ‘em up, and save energy next year!

And how about the temperature in the room? The human body produces heat, so if you get a bunch of people together, you’ll raise the temperature in the room — meaning you can set your thermostat a little cooler than normal.

If you’re cooking (who isn’t?), ovens also produce excess heat, raising the temperature of a room another few degrees — and BAM! You can turn down that thermostat.

2. COOKING

You probably know that the most efficient ways to cook are microwaves, toaster ovens, and slow cookers. While less efficient, ovens and stoves are probably the way you’ll end up going for a big crowd (and we don’t blame you). But there are still ways to be more efficient while using them.

Cook different dishes together and make the most of the oven space. Try not to open the oven door once your food is cooking — every time you do, heat escapes. And while nearly every recipe will tell you to preheat the oven, it’s usually unnecessary. You’re gonna cook that turkey for 6 hours; 10 minutes of preheating won’t make much of a difference.

When you move over to the stovetop, make sure to use pans that fit the burners. If the pan is too small, you’re losing heat; if it’s too large, it takes far longer to cook. Much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you want it to be just right. Make sure to have the right lid for the pot to better trap the heat in the pan.

3. CLEAN-UP 

Once the meal is done, it’s time for the clean-up. My family has a ritual for this. After the meal, the men do the dishes. Depending on whose kitchen we are in, we’ll have a line of three to five people scraping, wiping, soaping, washing, rinsing, drying, and stacking.

Believe it or not, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than doing all the washing by hand, but many of the cups and plates used for holiday celebrations are not dishwasher-safe.

So, before you run that dishwasher, make sure it’s full of dishes — not half-full.

One of my favorite parts of the meal follows cleaning the dishes: the distribution of the leftovers! Every household brings a handful of containers and we parcel the food out. When you are getting those leftovers together, let them cool before you put them in the fridge. Hot food causes more of a temperature change inside the fridge than lukewarm food.

So have yourself a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the food and the togetherness — and save some money on your electric bill this holiday season!

How a slimy green sludge can fuel your life: Learn more at Energy Field Trip Week!

What’s slimy, green, good for your health, and will provide your car with fuel? Nope, its not Slimer. It’s algae.

Algae is a simple plant that can range in size from microscopic, single-cell simple plants to 65-foot-long giant seaweed. Most algae use photosynthesis to produce energy (i.e. light and carbon dioxide to make energy and oxygen). Algae can be grown in brackish and waste water where other plants would not grow.

From looking at algae — a colorful, slimy mess — you might not think that it has as many uses as it does. Millions of people eat it every day. If you have a seaweed salad or raw fish wrapped in seaweed, you’re eating algae. Next time you’re having a dairy product, check to see if it has any carrageenan in it. Carrageenan comes from algae. And when’s the last time you’ve been to a spa? It’s probably been too long, but if you like those seaweed body wraps, that’s algae again. For more than six centuries algae has been used as a fertilizer.

Laurencia, a genus of red algae from Hawaii

It’s fair to say we’ve established that algae is a useful substance, but what about using it to fuel your car?

There are a few different types fuel you can turn algae into. You can grow it and ferment it and make fuel ethanol out of it. You could take the algae and, using a similar process as with vegetable oil, turn it into biodiesel. You can even put that algae through a pyrolysis  process and turn it into an oil-like substance that can be refined into gasoline. After all, gasoline and diesel are made of 100-million-year-old algae. Why not use the current stuff?

If algae is so easy to make into fuel, why aren’t they already doing it?  In fact, we already are. Many companies and universities have algae farms that are producing fuel. The National Algae Association, based here in Houston, is working with industries and universities to help bring down the cost of algae-based oil. And it’s not just adults that are working on this. A high-school student was working on ways to breed algae to be more oil-rich. While this wonderful technology will not be able to replace all crude oil use, in the next five to 10 years, be on the lookout for it to become economic enough to start taking percentages off our crude oil and help lead us to energy security.

Teachers, if you’re curious about what an algae test facility looks like, come join us this summer for our Summer Energy Field Trip Week. For more information click here!

Everybody wants you: Why gas is so important and how you can drive down gas prices

people-walking

What’s transparent, powerful, and something that we use in our everyday lives? Nope, it’s not the government, (though some people may think they control it). No, it’s not the Internet, although we’ll see in the coming years how the government changes that.

I’m talking about gasoline. Gasoline is a transparent liquid containing mainly hydrogen and carbon, and, when burning, produces mainly carbon dioxide and water. Americans use it every day to get to and from work and home, and to run all the errands of our daily lives.

Gasoline was one of the byproducts sloughed off at the beginning of the oil industry; back in the early days, kerosene was king. During the 19th century, kerosene replaced whale oil as the preferred fuel for lights, but as the automobile became popular and the internal combustion engine became common, gasoline became the preferred product of crude oil.  In the end, gasoline beat out hydrogen, coal, and ethanol as THE fuel source for the automobile.

Today America uses over 360 million gallons of gasoline a day. That means on average we each use more than a gallon of gasoline every day.

Why is gasoline the fuel of choice? The quick and useless answer is because it’s what we have. A lot of other fuels (hydrogen, coal, natural gas, ethanol, wood, etc) were tried, but gasoline proved to be easy to use, relatively easy to create, and energy rich. A gallon of gasoline contains about 132 megajoules (MJ) or 13 kilowatt hours. Ethanol is about 121 MJ/gallon.

What about coal?  Coal isn’t measured in gallons because it’s a solid, but 1 pound of coal contains 16 MJ (where a pound of gasoline is 22 MJ). So we use gasoline because it’s useful.

As we all watch the price of gasoline creep up and up, we all start to worry about it. When I first started driving, gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. These days we see it jump past $4. Gasoline, which comes from crude oil, is a limited commodity. There is only so much on the market (84 million barrels of crude oil a day). Out of each barrel (42 gallons) of crude oil, 19 gallons of gasoline is made.

Out of each gallon of gasoline, about 11 percent of the cost goes straight to state and federal taxes. Eighteen percent goes into refining the crude oil into gasoline. The lion’s share (62 percent) goes into the cost of getting the crude oil.

Saying all that, the price of gasoline is still important. In fact, a lot of our fellow citizens thought it was one of the major issues in the election, even though the President has little power over the cost.

What can we do to drive the price down? There are many corporations trying to find alternative ways to make gasoline. We know coal can be converted to gasoline. In fact, we know a couple of processes that work. Why are we not using them? As with most things like this, the answer is in the economics. If you have the plant in place, it’s a very expensive process. If you don’t have a plant in place, it takes years to build one.  Hydrocarbons, like gasoline, can be created by feeding algae plastics, but that’s a bleeding edge technology and not near production yet. We might even be able to pull hydrocarbons from the air, like a good magician. British scientists have come up with a way to take carbon out of the carbon dioxide in the air, combine it with hydrogen, and BAM! make gasoline. But all that’s in the future.

What can we do to lower the price today? Simple: Buy less of it. Because there is a larger supply of gasoline available, the price will go down to reflect the change in the supply and the demand. Plan out your errands ahead of time so you can do them all at the same time and in an efficient driving manner. Use your legs and the nice weather (while we have it) and walk places instead of driving. Are there grocery stores in your neighborhood? Or a bookstore? Walk around and find out. Find out more ways to use less gasoline at ECC.hmns.org.

Fan yo self: Power down and cool off with these energy-efficient methods

My air-conditioning has been out for a week. Fortunately, the week it nefariously chose to go on strike has been a rather cool one, but I’ve still had to employ some less energy-intensive procedures to keep cool.

The first is the use of fans. Pretty straight-forward stuff. And because using the stove and oven to cook heats the room up, I wait until late evening to cook. I also drink more chilled water throughout the day to regulate my own temperature. If it’s nice out, I open windows in the room to create a cross breeze.

Power downEven though I’ve implemented cooling methods that are efficient and cost-effective, I must admit that I’m looking forward to getting the air conditioner fixed. But knowing what I know now, perhaps I’ll go the natural route more often. What will you power down to save energy?