Saving Energy: Simple Changes, Big Impact

Solar panels and wind turbines get most of the buzz, but it's far easier and cheaper to save energy than it is to make more of it. Now, President Obama's economic stimulus package is pouring billions into energy-efficiency programs. As Amy Standen reports, it's shining a new spotlight on some of the simpler ways we can all reduce our energy use.

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Solar panels and wind turbines get most of the buzz, but it's far easier and cheaper to save energy than it is to make more of it. Now, President Obama's economic stimulus package is pouring billions into energy-efficiency programs. As Amy Standen reports, it's shining a new spotlight on some of the simpler ways we can all reduce our energy use:

Sure, I've thought about buying solar panels to put on my roof. There's a perfect spot on the south-facing slope - maybe we could power the whole house. But there are some easier things we could do first ñ like insulate the attic or weather strip the doors. And yet, somehow I never quite get around to them.

Why is that? Well James Sweeney directs the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford, and he has a theory.

"Energy efficiency turns out to have low salience to people."

Which is to say, it's maybe a little bit boring?

"It's very boring."

But if your eyes start to glaze over at the mere mention of the word "efficiency," consider the compact fluorescent light bulb.

"The easiest thing everyone can do is change their lighting."

If everyone in the U.S. traded in their old incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents, we'd cut electricity use by about 2%.

Which, maybe, doesn't sound so impressive - until you consider the fact that all the solar and all the wind power combined in the entire country amounts to .4% of our total energy use. That's 0.4.

"The cleanest energy is the energy you don't need in the first place."

That fact has not been lost on the Obama White House. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is pouring approximately 20 billion dollars into efficiency projects.

Five billion of that will fund what's called the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families weatherproof their homes. To qualify, a family of four must make less than $44,000 a year.

(sound of someone giving directions - "Take 25 and go to El Paso Road")

That stimulus cash funds local non-profits like Community Resource Project, in Sacramento, California. Since January, Community Resource's budget has tripled, from 1.3 to 4.5 million dollars a year. They're buying new trucks, hiring at all levels, and going to more and more homes.

(sound of knocking at a door)

Like this one - a five-bedroom stucco ranch house in a newer suburban development outside of Sacramento.

(sound of door opening)

"Hello, how are you doing?"

At the door is Tinamarie Dunn, a family friend whoís showing us around today. She gives a squeeze to two-year old Anaya, one of ten children who live here.

"Look Anaya, say cheese." (Anaya: Cheese.)

Dunn says utility bills here can hit $500 dollars a month. She says the house just doesn't work right.

"When the heat is on, downstairs is hot, downstairs is cold. When the air's on, the upstairs is cold, the downstairs is hot."

Community Resource's Dana Gonzalez walks into the kitchen, and pauses to take a look around.

Standen: "So when you walked in, what was the first thing you saw?"

Gonzalez: ìIt's funny. You see this door shoe and you see, actually the bottom rubber is gone."

He points to a two-inch gap under the front door.

"And if you put your hand here, you can actually feel the air. Anytime they kick on their heat and cool, that's definitely affecting their house, and in the long run, affects their bill."

Community Resource will spend about $1500 here, aiming to cut monthly utility bills by as much as 20%.

They'll weather strip the doors, patch up holes in the walls, install CFL bulbs. We're not talking solar panels or radiant heating - just small, mostly inexpensive adjustments that cumulatively, have a huge impact.

The White House says these efficiency projects will create thousands of jobs, but there's also concern that the huge cash infusion is a recipe for fraud and mismanagement.

Department of Energy officials have called for extra vigilance in the disbursement of weatherization cash. But, they say, the benefits, both environmental and economic, far outweigh the risks.

For The Environment Report, I'm Amy Standen.