What is your favorite eco-friendly product that you own and how do you use it?
It's not really a single product, but I'd say our off-grid solar PV system. It always blows my mind how much solar has dropped in cost - I originally DIY'ed our system and it cost us $4.5/watt for our first two panels, something like $1,500 for just the panels off the truck, wholesale. Then a few years later, we upgraded our system and for the same price we bought FOUR times as many panels. A few years later, we finally maxed out our system (for us that's just 12 panels, or about 2kw - a traditionally wired grid-connected home needs a lot more) and it was less than we paid in 2007 to double the system again.
It was an investment to get all that gear, but now we are in our early 30s and we have no utility bills - we have a lot of years to reap the savings since the panels will last for 50+ years. People think solar doesn't work up here in Maine, but nothing could be further than the truth. All we need is a good hour of sunshine -even in the middle of winter - and we can get through our household's needs without firing up a generator. And we don't live 'lean' by any means... We have unlimited hot, running water, plenty of power for laptop and cell phones (Netflix!), refrigeration, lighting, heck I even run an audio studio out here.
Does your house have any design elements that keep your carbon footprint low? If so, what are they?
Yes my wife and I built two (!) houses, each with energy efficient designs. The first is a yurt-inspired dwelling constructed of Structured Insulated Panels (SIPs), a product that is sort of like a spray foam ice cream sandwich. At the time we were both into round house designs, and after some deep consideration building a yurt in Maine to be a year-round dwelling doesn't make a whole heckuva lot of sense - it's basically a tent! So we built something that has the 'essence' of a yurt but is WAY more efficient. We burn about 1/2 cord of firewood each year to keep warm.
As our family expanded from just the two of us, to a family of (now) four, we needed more space, and expanded by building a second detached structure which serves as our bedrooms. That structure is constructed from double-stud walls with dense pack cellulose - like our original yurt-inspired house, it's incredibly energy efficient, meaning it costs less to heat and cool than a lesser building. We burn 100% wood most of which is harvested on our property.
We were able to do this while living on an income of around $50k/year and building the house part-time, neither one of us with any carpentry experience going in. If you have the courage to go through with it, find some local mentors, and the ability to google some DIY videos on YouTube, you can do this too!
What are two small things you do around the house to live more sustainably?
When you're off-grid you are always super-conscious of how you use energy, so you won't find anyone more particular about powering off power-strips (die phantom loads, die!) and unneeded lights than me. One of our favorite (and not particularly costly) upgrades was switching from compact fluorescent lightbulbs over to LEDs. The LEDs are roughly HALF the energy cost of CFLs and much nicer light. In my experience you can buy LEDs online for roughly half the cost of the big box store hardware retailers.
What kind of car do you drive?
Nothing special, a Mazda 3. I hope to drive an all-electric car someday but that's a bit tough if you're off-grid - nowhere to charge the thing (except maybe work).
What is your best piece of advice for others who are interested in living a more eco-friendly lifestyle?
Every journey begins with a first step. We are pretty seriously eco-friendly today, but that's a product of making small incremental decisions over the course of over a decade now. Start with the basics- Recycle, compost, re-use shopping bags, carry a water bottle with you.
On the other hand - some of the bigger eco stuff - going solar, weatherizing your house, etc - is more affordable than you might think, and especially younger people should be eco-friendly for environmental as well as financial reasons. Like saving for retirement, the sooner you get going on an eco-friendly lifestyle, the more money you'll be able to save over your life.
Have you made any diet changes that allow you to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle? If so, what changes have you made?
My wife and I are members of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, meaning we get a share of a local farmer's harvest each week throughout the summer months. We grow our own poultry and only eat meat we either raised or know the farmers who raised it. Having fresh local food each day is a fun challenge, you never know what you're going to get, but you know it's the freshest stuff out there, and you get creative.
What is one lifestyle change you’ve made to reduce your carbon footprint?
Deciding to build a house on our own set this all in motion!
Who do you think is making a big difference in the renewable energy industry that the public should be keeping an eye on?
I'm guessing just about everyone is going to mention Elon Musk, but, I will too. Not because he is necessarily the most brilliant, or doing the most original thing. Take the solar tiles for instance - they have been around for awhile, and just never caught on. But Elon is like the Steve Jobs of renewable energy. MP3 players existed before the iPod. There were plenty of them. But something about Steve captured not just the actual technology, but the imagination of people on how they could use that technology in their lives. And that's how Elon is with solar, batteries, electric vehicles, etc. He allows us to imagine how the future could be, and by doing so, is in fact shaping it.