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Homeowners in rural areas are paying thousands of dollars more for power than city dwellers, and experts argue that they must get their houses in order, then turn their attention to making their agricultural operations go green.
Park City » Looking out at his audience, Tom Potter knew what he had to say would be a hard sell.
"The first step in controlling the nation's energy future begins in our own homes," he told farmers and ranchers at the Utah Farm Bureau's midyear conference. Insulation and compact florescent light bulbs, the old standbys, are only two of the more than 100 ways homeowners can save money and conserve energy, he said. Even more than transportation, buildings are the No. 1 drain on U.S. energy needs.
Although farmers can save thousands of dollars by finding ways to save energy, they face obstacles. Farm homes make up the largest housing stock lacking energy audits or energy-efficient retrofits because of long distances technicians must drive, in what Potter dubbed "the windshield factor."
He then raised a question. Would the state's largest farm organization team up with his nonprofit Southwest Energy Efficiency Project to do audits that would identity places where energy is being wasted and prioritize the projects needed to fix them?
During a break, Farm Bureau President Leland Hogan explained the silence.
"Farmers know how to open windows at night," he said. "It's going to take 20 years to bridge the gap between an oil-based economy and alternative energy. America needs to drill."
That assertion is backed up by U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, who routinely tells farm groups that alternative energy sources are as long as 30 years away from becoming cost effective or practical. The Utah Republican says he supports conservation efforts -- but the best hope for agricultural groups is to support more domestic drilling and clean coal.
Said Potter: "People in rural areas get it drummed into their heads that they can't do anything about energy costs. But they are in the best position to do something."
But therein lies the rub, the challenge -- and the hope.
The Utah Farm Bureau, representing 21,000 member families, echoes Bennett's philosophy.
This summer the organization linked up with the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality to push for more energy development, particularly coal and expanded oil and gas drilling. Singled out for scorn was the Interior Department's decision in May to list polar bears as threatened with extinction, which purportedly could hamper drilling efforts.
"Rather than allowing these [environmental] elitists to stop progress at every turn for a critter, a cactus or another artifact," wrote Farm Bureau CEO Randy Parker in an August newsletter, "let's begin to include the needs of the American people."
But not all farmers and ranchers feel that way, and some have even taken it upon themselves to make conservation work to their benefit.
Far from the grid
Out in Beaver County's Wah Way Valley, ranchers Mark and Nicki Wintch are acutely aware of how much energy they use in their home. They don't have the option of buying power from a utility company because their property is miles away from the nearest grid.
Mark's father, John, built a hydroelectric plant in 1988 for an irrigation system and two homes on the property. The plant, which replaced a generator that burned 15 to 20 gallons of diesel a day, paid for itself in 12 years. More than half the power goes to heating, cooling and lighting the family's two homes.
When water levels are low, the plant shuts off so the Wintch family is careful with the electricity it uses. During dry years the plant has produced as little as 17 kilowatt-hours of power each day, while in wet seasons it's closer to 35 kilowatts. (A typical home can use up to 26 kilowatt-hours per day.)
It was during a dry season that the Wintches replaced all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. And last winter, they replaced their old windows with vinyl-frame double panes.
"I was surprised at the difference in the power we used," said Nicki Wintch. "It was spectacular."
In Sevier County, Eric Tuft's alfalfa farm is much closer to a power grid. But when he built a new home, he designed it to save energy. Tuft installed a hot-water heating system under the floors, invested in solar roof panels and capitalized on passive solar, such as south-facing windows, overhangs and window solar blinds the family removes during summer months.
About 80 percent of the Tufts' home utility needs come from the sun.
"I started looking at ways to save on energy after the oil crisis in the 1970s," said Tufts, 58. "It was a wake-up call because I realized that oil could go way up again -- and it has."
For his part, Potter says that change will come from people like Tufts and the Wintches. Always practical, other farmers will take note when they see their neighbors switch to conservation schemes that can actually save money. Though cutting-edge families seem to be in the minority at this point, there are plenty of opportunities to save energy for other farmers who want to jump onboard.
For instance, many farmers could substantially reduce home utility bills by using their own backhoes to dig trenches for a geoexchange system. Made up of a geothermal heat pump and underground pipes, heat is taken from the ground and transferred into a building in the winter and the process is reversed to cool building during hot periods.
"Backhoes aren't something that people living in the city have sitting around in their backyards," said Potter. "But for farmers who usually do have this equipment, installation costs alone could be cut by one-third."
Geoexchange systems are the most environmentally friendly and efficient home heating and cooling units available, and they can reduce gas bills by nearly half, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In Colorado, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association has a payback plan to cover costs of the systems -- with no initial down payment. The association also offers rebates for customers who install solar panels and other energy-saving measures.
"We're known nationwide for being on the 'bleeding edge of technology,'?" said the association's account supervisor, Phil Zimmer. "We look for low- or no-cost ways to help our customers cut their energy bills. Because we've been in business for 70 years, we don't look for a one-year payback time."
Drawing less energy
Zimmer also points to the 100,000 compact fluorescent bulbs the association is giving away free to its customers.
"If people screw 'em in, we'll recoup our costs in a year," he said. "And savings will continue to accrue during the next four years of the bulbs' lifetime."
Homeowners can save $30 or more in electricity costs for each compact bulb they use, says the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy. And if every American home replaced just one incandescent bulb with a government-rated Energy Star compact florescent light, the nation would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.
In Utah, homeowners typically use half their electricity for refrigerators, freezers and air conditioning. Cooling alone accounts for 30 percent of home energy use. But in the arid Southwest, homeowners are shying away from evaporative coolers, which use up to 90 percent less energy than central air conditioners. About half of the company's Utah customers had evaporative cooling system in 1990 while only 20 percent had central air. By 2004, however, the numbers were reversed.
"We've seen a definite migration away from evaporate cooling," said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power. "The popularity of central air conditioning and low costs for electricity are why our customers are choosing this technology."
Use of more efficient lights is one of the best opportunities for farmers to spent less on utilities, producing from 40 percent to 70 percent savings in electricity used for lighting. The measures include compact fluorescent lights, high-intensity discharge retrofits, occupancy sensors and time controls, say researchers from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
Other tried-and-true steps that can cut overall utility bills from 20 to 40 percent include better control of home temperatures and appliances. Reducing water heater temperatures. Installing low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators. Unplugging or using power strips to shut off electronic devices when not in use. And more efficient heating and cooling systems.
"The cheapest kilowatt hour is the one we don't have to produce," Great River Energy CEO David Saggau is often quoted as saying.
Stakes are high for the nation in how U.S. agriculture consumes energy. Utah Farm Bureau officials have repeatedly said that food independence is a key component to national security. And that means U.S. farmers must do what's necessary to stay in business.
Next Sunday » Sevier County alfalfa grower Eric Tuft has been trimming his energy costs since the 1970s. Now, like then, farmers need to retool their operations to become more energy efficient .
Rocky Mountain Power rebates, incentives
Cool Cash » Offers money for qualifying high-efficiency evaporative cooling and central air conditioning systems.
Time of Day » Rewards customers who can move a substantial portion of their power usage away from summer "on-peak" hours when demand for electricity is at its highest and most expensive.
Refrigerator Recycling » Features pick up and recycling of old refrigerators and freezers, plus a $30 cash incentive.
The Self-Survey Home Energy Analysis » Offers customized recommendations.
Information » Call 1-888-221-7070 or visit www.RockyMtnPower.net.
Home visit » For $25, a Questar Gas technician will come to your home and provide a report with tips on energy efficiency. A water-heater blanket, pipe insulation, low-flow shower head and faucet aerators will be provided if the audit indicates a need and you are willing to install them.
Account credit » Follow through on recommendations, and the $25 audit charge will be credited back to your gas account.
Schedule appointment » Call 800-695-7375 or e-mail In-HomeAudit@ThermWise.com.