I once read a short story about a place that was so dependent on solar energy that it was a crime to let your shadow fall on a solar panel. We are not that desperate for electricity yet, but power costs seem to always be going up.
I think about that story sometimes as I look up at the roof of the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, where there are 109 shiny black solar panels on the roof. We may not consider it a crime to let your shadow cross the panels, but the solar panels make enough electricity to be an immensely valuable resource.
Solar panels are also known as photovoltaic (PV) panels and make electricity from light. The brighter the light, the more electricity they make. From April 10 to May 10, the panels made over half of the electricity that Audubon used. (That’s 1,923 kilowatt hours, for those who are mathematically inclined.)
Overall, the system was designed to generate about one third of the electricity that Audubon uses in a year. It will make more electricity on a long summer day than a short, snowy winter day, but those numbers should average out until the panels make one third of the energy used.
The big trick now is to use less electricity. There are lots of ways to use less electricity, and, with my honorary title of “Energy Nerd,” I’ve been working hard to figure out why Audubon uses so much electricity.
Some things quickly became obvious. There was a lot of older equipment that needed to be replaced. The freezers that hold fish for the eagle were all donated and all older. Older freezers can use more than twice the electricity as new ones. One of the eagle’s freezers used more electricity in a day than my house. One new Energy Star freezer was donated by Home Depot, another was provided at a discount by Lowes in Warren. These new freezers helped Audubon lower the electricity bills significantly.
The next energy hog that we tackled was lighting. There were 50 old-style 60-watt floodlights lighting our exhibits and store. We reduced the number to 40 floodlights and replaced the bulbs with compact fluorescent floodlights. This lowered our lighting costs for exhibits to one third of what it was.
Did you know that your computer, DVD player and TV all use electricity when they are turned off? Electricity is used to keep the clocks running and the tubes pre-warmed and ready to go. Electricity dorks, of which I am one, call this the “phantom load.” These products are using electricity even when they are turned off, but few people notice.
Audubon installed Smart Strips on the computers with printers to help eliminate some of the phantom load. The smart power strips sense when the power to the main computer is off and then cuts power to the monitor, printer, speakers and other peripherals. This eliminates the phantom load from those machines.
Replacing light bulbs and freezers was fairly obvious and easy. Audubon needed an expert to help lower our electricity use further. Todd Hanson, of Ahlstrom-Schaffer Electric in Jamestown, came through the building and did an energy audit to help us figure out where we could make further savings.
The first thing he noticed was our older fluorescent lights. The long fluorescent tubes seem to have never changed in my life, but they have. Each light fixture has a ballast to regulate the electricity coming into the fixture. In the older models, like those at Audubon, this is magnetic. They get very hot and use a lot of electricity. Newer electronic ballasts last much longer and use half the electricity. The newer lights are much skinnier and last twice as long as the older style does.
Ahlstrom-Schaffer and the Hite Company donated enough bulbs and ballasts to retrofit an entire room. The bulbs are brighter and lack that sickly yellow tinge that I think of with fluorescent bulbs.
The next phase in conservation at Audubon will be retrofitting all the lights to more efficient ones. Most retrofitting costs pay for themselves in two to four years. After that, the long-term savings begin to add up.
It’s always surprising to learn what uses energy. The exit signs throughout the building were installed long before there were highly efficient LED lights. Replacing those exit signs with energy-efficient LED signs will save more than $180 a year, but will cost about $700 initially. It will also save a lot of people from having to walk around and check lights all the time. Changing out the rest of the exhibit lighting will cost about $1,000. Replacing some of the old-style lighting will cost $500, but eliminate lights that use such huge amounts of electricity that they are rarely used.
Overall, there is about $2,500 worth of work to be done to save $1,000 a year in electricity costs. (Feel free to send a check to Audubon to help with that. Investing in conservation will help Audubon save money for years to come.)
Investing in saving money just makes sense, whether for a home or a business. My house used one third less electricity after we started doing these things at home. A business, with many more lights and expenses, may save even more. At Audubon, where the solar panels generate a large portion of the electricity, we hope to get to a place where electricity bills are very low.
The next step will be looking at the building’s insulation and seeing how and where the heat is escaping in the winter. We’ll keep you updated on our progress. In the meantime, take a look around your house. Have you got an old energy hog fridge running somewhere? Do you have huge phantom loads on your TVs and computers? Are there some places where you can work on saving energy and money? Why pay extra money for electricity?
You may be able to save enough money to get an extra half tank of gas instead.
Jeff Tome is the senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, where he has been working on conserving electricity for the last year. The Audubon Center and Sanctuary is located on Riverside Road, just east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. If you would like more information on conservation or solar power, contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.