Accidental Hardball

As I mentioned in October 2008, we buy our electricity from Green Mountain Energy, which focuses on renewable energy sources like wind and hydroelectric. When we moved to Euless, I locked in a rate of 15 cents/kwh for 12 months on their 100% wind plan. I knew I could get cheaper electricity elsewhere, but I wanted to support wind power and was willing to pay extra.

Over time, I grew frustrated with their ironic refusal to offer paperless billing and began shopping around. An independent website,, gives Texans an easy way to compare electric rates and plans for power companies across the state. I found plenty of better deals and swore to fire Green Mountain once my contract ended. Once our massive December electric bill arrived (through the mail, grumble grumble), I realized I could save money by breaking our contract and paying the early cancellation fee. Reliant (you know, the one that employs “Tom”) was offering 10.5 cents/kwh. I could recoup the cancellation fee in the first month.

I called GM and said I wanted to cancel, so they transferred me to the “cancellations department”, also known as retention specialists. In many cases, they have powers to bend the rules that normal phone reps do not. I’m sure they get evaluated on how many customers they can convince to stay. I explained my situation to Jose. Like magic, he offered me a new rate of 11.5 cents/kwh with no cancellation fee. Sure, it wasn’t quite as good as some of the other companies’ rates, but it was much better and let me avoid a $200 extra hit right after a month with no overtime shifts for me. Plus it let me keep using green power. I said yes.

Although some people threaten to cancel service mainly as a negotiating tactic, I honestly planned to cancel until Jose convinced me to stay. The lessons here?

  1. Pay attention to your bills and to the competition so you know what price is fair.
  2. If the competition offers a better deal, don’t be afraid to tell your company and see how badly they want to keep you.

Solar Water Heating

You’re probably familiar with the concept of solar heating – high-tech panels mounted on the roof that convert sunlight into electricity. While definitely helpful, the cost to install them ($30-60k for an average home before incentives) is prohibitive for most people, and the payoff period can be 15-20 years. A cheaper, easier, and more cost-effective option is to install solar water heating instead.

Simply put, a solar water heater uses a panel on your roof to collect solar energy to heat the water, which it stores in your existing hot water heater. When necessary, such as at night, your existing hot water heater can heat water like normal. The solar heater can assume over half the load, maybe more depending on how much hot water you use and when you use it. For a typical home, the savings are estimated at $50/month.

Thanks to the Obama administration’s tax credits and a special program by Oncor Electric Delivery for its customers, the net cost of installing a system in the DFW area can be around $2000. By saving around $600 annually on your electric bill, the system pays for itself in 3-4 years.

We would love to add one but haven’t decided on the timing. Have any of you installed one of these?

Sharks and Cage Diving

As a kid I read a lot, hopping from topic to topic. One of my favorite topics was sharks, which interest me to this day. One of my favorite times of year from a TV perspective is Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual homage to the the shark. Although it tends to focus too much on shark attacks since people are so interested in them, it also includes programs about the scientific side: diet, behavior, differences among different regions and species, and conservation efforts. I have watched a LOT of shark shows this week and hope to catch or record many more. It’s like Christmas in August!

Although many people find them terrifying, I find them fascinating. Sure, my heart speeds up a bit if I see one while snorkeling, but for me it’s more of a healthy respect than terror. I think people have mostly accepted that man sits comfortably atop the worldwide food chain, especially with today’s technology. But swimming with sharks unprotected knocks us down a level. The great steward and “master” of God’s creation suddenly becomes potential prey, and many of us don’t like that idea. The movie and book Jaws (which was based on a true story, by the way) and tons of hype by the media have grossly overemphasized the danger that sharks actually pose to humans. This demonization of such an amazing creature both angers and frustrates me. It also gives people an excuse to tolerate overfishing of sharks even if they object to whaling or the accidental killing of dolphins or sea turtles in fishing nets. Here are a few interesting facts I’ve gathered so far:

  • Each year, humans kill 100 million sharks. Some are killed just for their fins, some for meat or skin, some for sport.
  • Each year, sharks bite about 100 humans worldwide. Yep, 100. That’s less than one every three days, somewhere in the world. Of those 100, maybe five are fatal. In other words, we kill 1 million sharks for every one that even attacks us and 20 million for every one that kills a human.
  • In terms of recorded shark attacks, Florida is the most common location, followed by southern Australia and then South Africa.
  • Experts believe that many shark attacks are preventable. Victims are often involved in high-risk activities such as spearfishing, swimming alone, or swimming at night, dawn, or dusk.

Before I die, I want to dive in a cage with great whites. You probably think that’s either awesome or crazy. Either way, I won’t be going any time soon because the trips are expensive. But how thrilled and honored I would be to see one of the most powerful and capable predators in all God’s creation in person. There are three main areas to dive with them: southern Australia, Isla Guadalupe in Mexico, and South Africa. Here are links to three dive operators that serve these areas, in case you’re interested (hint, hint):

Rodney Fox (Southern Australia)

Cage Diver (Isla Guadalupe, Mexico)

Dive South Africa – In one area of South Africa, great whites are spotted jumping out of the water like a whale during attacks on seals.

Not into great whites? You can also dive with enormous but harmless whale sharks, which eat plankton and can grow over 50 feet. Belize, where we spent our honeymoon, is a good location:

Belize Scuba

Radiant Barrier Test

As you might recall, right after we bought our house, we hired a company to add insulation and radiant barrier to our attic. Insulation is self-explanatory. Radiant barrier is a special kind of foil (or paint, but the foil is more effective) that reflects attic heat away from the living area. With most installations, the foil creates a very hot area just under the roof and a significantly cooler area between the foil and the attic floor, the area where you might store your Christmas decorations. By making this area cooler, it reduces the amount of work that the AC units have to perform, saving power and money. Today, one on of the hottest days of the summer, I used my wireless temperature sensor to test our RB’s effectiveness.

First, I set the sensor in the cooler section of the attic, on the floor beneath the foil. The temperature stablized around 106 F. Then I set it on the bottom of the foil (there’s a small hole for access/testing). Above the foil the temperature was 136.8 F, a difference of nearly 31 degrees.

I don’t have any way to accurately measure how much money we saved with the insulation and radiant barrier, but I have no doubt that it’s significant. We also have no problem keeping the second story cool in all rooms. I sleep like a baby up there. So if you’re looking for ways to save money, seriously consider insulation and radiant barrier.

Here are a couple of pictures of the new attic.

This and That

I can’t decide on one topic to blog about, so here is a cornucopia of random thoughts.

  • I’m not sure what I think about the new GM plan. It looks like all the shareholders and creditors will get screwed, the government will use my money to become the majority owner of GM, and yet another fatally flawed business will be allowed to live simply because it was “too big to fail”. These things bother me. However, although I’m not an economist, I can believe the argument that a total GM failure would be a disaster for millions and millions of people.
  • I’m really excited about doing green projects for our house. If our budget were unlimited, I would add solar panels, low-flow toilets, solar water heating, new windows, solar screens, a rainwater collection system, and a hot water recirculating pump. Unfortunately, the reality of our budget finally sunk in, and we’ll have to space these projects out.
  • I just saw a piece on ESPN about a pitcher from San Diego State who can break 100mph with his fastball. That makes me happy.
  • Princess Cruises is offering West Coast repositioning cruises in September as they transition between summer and winter schedules. One goes from Vancouver to San Francisco over 2 nights. Another is a 1-nighter from Seattle to Vancouver. It’s almost like a hotel stay rather than a cruise.
  • Il Divo is singing at Nokia Theater in June. Look up Il Divo on YouTube. They are AWESOME.

Can We Live off Sustainable Energy?

Sustainable, or renewable, energy sources are among the most important and most challenging goals facing us today. The vast majority of our energy currently comes from fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas. These fuels produce lots of energy but also pollution. However, the biggest problem is their finite nature. Although we certainly haven’t discovered all possible sources of fossil fuels buried in the earth, the undisputable fact is that the total amount in the earth is finite and constantly decreasing as we use it up. The earth is not creating new fossil fuels, at least not at a rate that will make any difference in our lifetime. Estimates vary widely regarding how much time we have left, whether decades or a century or more. But sooner or later mankind MUST find a way to live off sustainable energy sources.

What does that mean? Sustainable energy comes from any source that the earth replenishes naturally, such as the sun, wind, tides, flowing water, or geothermal heat. Today, America and other countries use sustainable sources to a very small degree. One exception is Iceland, which draws most of its energy from geothermal or hydroelectric sources thanks to its active volcanoes and extensive rivers and waterfalls. The rest of us have a long way to go, such a daunting task that it’s hard to know where to begin.

A British physicist named David MacKay explored this question in a fascinating online book called Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air . In it, he analyzes British energy consumption and possible sources of sustainable energy production. Starting by removing fossil fuels from the equation, his thesis is simple: we can consume as much energy as we want IF we can produce that energy from sustainable sources. In other words, the equation has to balance. His findings are not pretty. If Britain set up the infrastructure to harness every possible source of renewable energy, it would just barely be enough to cover today’s energy consumption. Realistically, Britain could only produce a portion of its needs. Even more disturbing, America’s per-capita energy consumption is TWICE that of Britain’s, the highest in the world.

So what are we to do? The easy solution is to bury our heads in the sand and hope it will all magically work out. Unfortunately, this solution will likely leave all of us in a serious crisis by the time Brenden is my age. Dr. MacKay recommends drastic changes on both fronts: dramatically reducing our energy consumption and dramatically increasing our investment in renewables. Simple changes such as turning off the lights or unplugging the toaster are nice, but they are a drop in a vast ocean. The real changes we need include electric cars, greatly increased use of mass transit, solar water heaters, setting our thermostats lower in winter and higher in summer. If you don’t have time to read the whole book, posted a nice summary that might take a couple of minutes.