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Dear EarthTalk: I understand that there are many kinds of automatic features that can be incorporated into a home—even some that can be operated remotely—that can save energy and provide other environmental benefits. Can you enlighten?                   -- Robert Goodman, Taos, NM

Home automation may indeed be the next big trend in what consumers can do today to stand up for the environment. By setting up a wired (or even wireless) system, homeowners can optimize lighting level efficiency, cut heating and cooling energy costs and deactivate energy-consuming devices and appliances even when no one is home.

EarthTalkHomeAutomation

By setting up a home automation system,
homeowners can optimize lighting level
efficiency, cut heating and cooling energy
costs and deactivate energy-consuming
devices and appliances even when no one
is home. Pictured: A motion and sound
sensor, one form of home automation
already widely in use for keeping lights off
when a room is not occupied.
Credit: iStockPhoto

“An automated home brings together security, fire, lighting, temperature control, audio, video, pool, spa, drapery control, sprinklers, and anything else that you want so that these systems can talk to each other and work together,” reports Jay McLellan of Home Automation Inc., a leading manufacturer of integrated automation and security systems for residential and commercial use. “In an automated home these devices work together to make the home more energy efficient, comfortable, more convenient and safer.”

One easy way to dip a toe in the water of home automation is to swap out regular light switches for occupancy sensors, which can tell if a room is occupied and will turn lights on and off accordingly.

Upgrading to a programmable thermostat that will regulate heating and cooling according to a set schedule is another way to reduce energy consumption and save money. Some newer models, such as Nest from California-based Nest Labs, can program themselves based on occupants’ routines and also offer the option to adjust heating and cooling settings remotely via the Internet. A built-in occupancy sensor signals to the Nest whether and when people are around, and the unit then adjusts heating or cooling accordingly. The newest version, Nest 2, can tell within a half hour when occupants have vacated and will set the indoor temperature to more energy efficient level on its own.

Shelling out $249 for Nest’s so-called “learning thermostat” may seem a little extreme, but the feature may save enough money and electricity to pay for itself in as little as a year. Nest Labs helps consumers track their energy usage and savings with monthly “energy reports” that detail why home heating and cooling costs have gone up or down (based on usage and time away, as well as other factors, such as weather). These reports also contain tips on how to optimize Nest as well as other tips to increase energy savings accordingly. Nest thermostats can replace most existing thermostats and do not require upgrading to a newer furnace or air conditioning system—although newer heating and cooling systems, especially those that meet the U.S. government’s EnergyStar criteria for efficiency, do tend to save much more energy than older ones. Some 56 percent of the energy used in a typical American home goes to heating and cooling, so automation can make a big difference for the environment and the pocketbook.

Beyond lighting and thermostats, whole-house automation systems connect home electronics (including appliances and security systems) into an integrated wireless network that allows occupants to control from off-site, including via the Internet or a mobile phone app. A Sylvania Z-Wave Starter Kit from SmartHomeUSA.com is one affordable way to get started with whole-house automation; you can start small and gradually add electronics to the system.

CONTACTS: Home Automation Inc., www.homeauto.com; Nest Labs, www.nest.com; SmartHomeUSA, http://www.smarthomeusa.com/ShopByManufacturer/Sylvania/Item/SH50102.

 

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Dear EarthTalk: What is “biomass” and why is it controversial as a potential source of energy?                          -- Edward White, New Bedford, MA

EarthTalkBiomass

Biomass can be a part of the effort to cut
back on fossil fuels, but only if it is harvest-
ed and used in ways that reduce pollution,
cut emissions and protect forests. Pictured:
A biomass-burning power plant.
Credit: iStockPhoto

Biomass is plant matter that is burned as a source of energy. Fallen or cut wood that is burned for heat is one primary form of biomass, but another includes plant or animal matter that is converted into biofuels.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was formed during the oil shocks of the early 1970s to help ward off future energy shortages, biomass combustion is a carbon-neutral process because the carbon dioxide released at burning has previously been absorbed by the plants from the atmosphere.
Biomass resources, reports IEA, include agricultural residues, animal manure, wood wastes, food and paper industry residues, municipal green wastes, sewage sludge, and a large variety of grasses and crops.

But while biomass may be in theory carbon-neutral, green groups point out that there is no free lunch. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), for example, points out that some American timber companies are targeting whole trees from forests as an easy source of biomass and are pressuring Congress to open up additional National Forest acreage for this form of energy generation.

NRDC says that, practically speaking, burning whole trees for biomass energy is far from carbon-neutral, given that the carbon dioxide that trees accumulate over decades is suddenly released into the atmosphere upon combustion, just like when coal is burned. “But unlike coal, however, trees will continue to absorb carbon if left alone.” Therefore, the burning of forests for biomass energy both emits considerable amounts of carbon and destroys an important way carbon is prevented from entering our atmosphere.

Deforestation isn’t the only problem with biomass. Burning biomass also produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other toxins harmful to our health. Two California wood-fired power plants were fined $830,000 under the Clean Air Act recently for violating emissions standards.

And then there is the issue of the efficiency of biomass as a fuel feedstock. Researchers have found that some common forms of biomass yield only 25 or 30 percent the amount of energy as an equivalent amount of coal. The 2011 closure of a biomass conversion plant in Georgia that reportedly spent $320 million to produce just 100,000 gallons of ethanol stands out as another black mark against biomass.

Despite such downsides, reports NRDC, some policymakers seeking to promote alternative fuels are proposing actions and policies that would greatly increase the use of biomass. At the same time, the group says, industry lobbyists are pushing to relax biomass sourcing safeguards and “pushing to give industrial biomass burning a ‘free pass’ on complying with Clean Air Act mandates.”

Biomass can be a part of the effort to cut back on fossil fuels, but only if it is harvested and used in ways that reduce pollution, cut emissions and protect forests. NRDC and other green groups would like to see Congress impose stricter rules to rein in soot, smog and greenhouse gases at biomass power plants and pass measures that safeguard forests from deforestation for biomass development.

CONTACTS: International Energy Agency, www.iea.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

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