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Sunday, April 29, 2007

News From My Backyard: Efficient Oregon

Oregonians use less energy and water than national average and previous years

[From the Oregonian:]

Maybe it's the Northwest conservation ethic or more energy-efficient homes and appliances. Or maybe it's the benefit of living closer together in well-planned areas like the Pearl District, using space and everything else more efficiently.

Whatever it is, we're each using less electricity on average in the Portland metro area -- and less natural gas and less water. And Oregonians on average drive less than the rest of the country.

[Image: Oregonians have improved their efficiency in energy and water use. (Click to enlarge) Image Source: the Oregonian]

We may not be perfect -- California, for instance, uses less electricity (and more natural gas) per household -- but we're getting better. It's a bit of green news on this Earth Day that shows we're finding ways to cut our appetite for key resources that threaten to suck dollars from our wallets as those resources grow scarcer and more expensive.

That holds true even as we plug in more and more electronic gadgets and our homes get bigger on average.

The report card:

  • Water: Homes in Portland consume about 100 fewer gallons of water a day than they did 20 years ago. Over the course of a year, that's enough to fill a large backyard swimming pool.

    We have cut our thirst enough that our total water use has dropped even though more people are using the water, according to figures from the Portland Water Bureau.

  • Electricity: Each household served by Portland General Electric uses about 10 percent less electricity on average than it did 10 years ago, according to PGE figures.

    We do use more electricity overall, since there are so many more homes drawing on the supply today. But the average energy saved per home is enough to power seven compact fluorescent light bulbs every hour of every day for a year.

  • Natural gas: Each home served by Northwest Natural Gas Co. burns an average of 12 percent less natural gas than it did 10 years ago, according to NW Natural figures.

    The amount each home saves over a year is more than enough to serve another entire home for a month.

  • Gasoline: Every Oregonian burned less gas -- 31.4 gallons -- last year on average than the rest of the country. At today's prices, that translates into $90.12 you didn't have to spend on fuel. Oregon's gasoline use spiked last year compared with previous years, but still remains lower than the rest of the nation's.

  • "It means you're putting less of your family income into those resources, and you're polluting less at a time when there are more and more of us," said Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder.

    Technology plays big role

    We owe some of the savings to more energy-efficient appliances that fill our homes. Refrigerators manufactured today may consume less than half as much energy as one produced 15 years ago. As home electronics have gotten smaller -- think of shifting from a 1980s "boom box" to a tiny iPod -- they use less energy.

    "People's enjoyment of their music is probably greater, because of the convenience factor, but their energy use is less," said John Karasaki, an energy efficiency engineer with PGE.

    The energy savings have continued even though many more homes are installing power-hungry air-conditioning systems as summers warm.

    But is it just that we're using more efficient light bulbs, or are we also more careful to turn them off when we're not in the room? It's tough to tell. Energy experts say it's probably some of both.

    Even the best energy-saving technology doesn't help much if people don't make good use of it.

    "Behavior will always trump technology," Karasaki said. "You can have the most efficient windows in the world, but if people leave them open all winter long, there's not much value in having them."

    New homes, with their insulation and energy-saving windows, are roughly 25 percent more efficient when it comes to using energy than older, drafty homes that leak heat like sieves, said Bill Edmonds, director of environmental policy and sustainability at Northwest Natural.

    They're also outfitted with water-saving toilets and more efficient dishwashers that reduce demand for water.

    Drought spurs change

    The savings have come relatively easy; it's unlikely they would have come at all had they cost people cash or comfort.

    For example, the turnaround year in the region's water use was 1992, when a severe drought brought prohibitions on washing cars and watering lawns. Nighttime patrols nabbed homeowners who tried to illegally water their gardens under cover of darkness.

    Water consumption fell by more than 5 billion gallons amid the dry spell. It bumped up again for several years but, to this day, has never climbed back to pre-1992 levels. Residents found ways to use less water when they had to, and then kept it up afterward.

    From about the mid-1990s on, water use fell steadily even as Portland's population rose. Last year, the total volume of water drawn from the Portland system was smaller than it was during the severe clampdown of the 1992 drought, though the system serves roughly 115,000 more people.

    It offers proof that residents can quickly reduce their use of vital resources if they have to, and it reinforces a secret of energy efficiency: Once people find they can make do with less, they often keep using less.

    Cities often make do with less water and power per person as they grow, especially if more people live closer together in condominiums or other dense housing. For one thing, buildings with many housing units are more efficient to heat and cool because there are fewer outside walls exposed to the elements.

    "It's a more efficient way to house people -- to stack them," said Loren Lutzenhiser, a professor at Portland State University's school of urban studies and planning. Efficiency also pays off very quickly in cities because their populations make them vast consumers.

    For another thing, though, housing in parts of the city such as the Pearl District often replaces heavy industrial operations that once consumed much more water and power.

    The same patterns of people living closer together -- and closer to the necessities of life: grocery stores, restaurants, work -- may also contribute to Oregon's declining thirst for gasoline.

    Taking the bus

    As for gas savings, it's possible that drivers may be reacting to higher gas prices by planning their travels more carefully and conservatively.

    As recently as 1991, each Oregonian burned more gasoline than the national average. But every year since, we have burned less than the rest of the country.

    That's probably at least in part because we're driving less. The number of miles that vehicles cover on state-owned highways peaked in about 2002. Cars now travel about 200 million fewer miles on state highways, even though the number of cars in the state has risen.

    In rural reaches of the state, it's probably because struggling economies curtail the number of people on the road. But in more urban areas, it's likely for other reasons: People may be living closer to where they work and using alternative transportation such as walking or bicycling.

    Residents of the Portland metro area drive less than people in other large cities. Since 1999, the number of miles people here drive on average has stayed about level, while people in other comparable cities are driving farther.

    And public transportation use is growing. The number of people boarding TriMet buses and trains has nearly doubled since 1991, rising much faster than the population. Census figures show more people use public transportation to get to work.

    It's not to say that Oregon is immune from factors that push gasoline use up, or won't suffer setbacks in conservation progress. Last year, for instance, Oregonians burned more gas than the year before.

    But we still consumed less than the national average, and we're on track to use even less in coming years as efficiency standards improve for cars, appliances and more. Much of that will come without a whole lot of effort and probably will save money by saving energy.

    And a little effort can save even more.

    [A hat tip to Sightline/Tidepool]

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