SANTA FE. Like many in this city, Carl Rosenberg wants to save the environment and the planet. A bumper sticker on the back of his pick up truck— the venue of political expression in New Mexico— reads "Compost Rotten Politics. Vote Green."
Unlike the many here who wish to save the world with crystals and other forms of magical thinking, however, Mr. Rosenberg brings an eclectic engineering background to the subject. He arrives at the Old Santa Fe Trail Bookstore Cafwith a heavy leather satchel filled with books, documents, and papers. He also carries more than a decade of real world experience dealing with energy consumption in Alaska. Carl Rosenberg can, and will, show you how to reduce day to day resource consumption dramatically.
Which brings us to an interesting question. Why energy? Why resources? Why conservation?
Because weve gone to sleep on the subject. The trauma of OPEC is long forgotten. No one remembers the long lines for gasoline, the hours spent cutting wood in the seventies, or that fact that a simple aluminum storm window provided a higher return on investment in 1974 than IBM. While it is possible, today, to buy a car that gets 50 miles per gallon and easy to buy one that gets 25 mpg, the most popular vehicle in America is the Sport Utility and the most popular of those are the largest and least fuel efficient. Consumer preference for big guzzlers is so strong that Lexus, Infinity, and Mercedes Benz have introduced or announced SUVs. Indeed, Porsche announced it would build a sport utility when everyone else was listing their New Years resolutions.
Meanwhile, oil prices are rising, natural gas prices are finally doing what Boone Pickens predicted they would do, there is a national shortage of propane, and millions of Chinese are trading in their bicycles for motorbikes.
I asked Mr. Rosenberg for his observations.
"One of the things that impressed me, coming here to Santa Fe, is that there are houses that are 300 and 400 years old that have been continually occupied. Thats really amazing. If something lasts that long it means that planning is very important. Basically, I think we can do much better with what weve got and that means not just the ongoing consumption of resources but what some call the embodied energy in structures. Some of our houses are very resource intense in their construction."
He observed that builders still failed to consider long term costs or to incorporate energy oriented design. As examples he cited the use of electric heat when natural gas was more efficient and the failure of most builders to use heating whose air source was external. A typical New Mexico fireplace, he pointed out, usually pulled in enormous amounts of cold air, offsetting any heat it provided. The same principal worked with gas furnaces and hot water heaters that were inside houses— every cubic foot of air used for combustion was a cubic foot of cold air drawn from outside.
Did he have any suggestions?
"If you start with three things, this is what they should be.", he said.
First, create a life style that allows you to ride a bus. We need to adjust our transportation habits so we can park the cars." ( Drawing out a sheaf of papers, he showed me that a typical auto consumed more resources and produced more pollutants than a house.)
Second, make small investments in weatherizing throughout your house. For $500 to $2,000 you can make a big dent in energy bills.
Third, educate yourself on the payback of everything you purchase. The new fluorescent bulbs, for instance, cost $15 to $20 but last 8 to 10 times longer than conventional bulbs and use one quarter of the energy. These bulbs are so efficient that a lot of businesses are rebulbing to reduce costs.
Skeptical that it would be worth your time and bother? Then consider a simple example: if you are part of a two earner couple and each earns $15 an hour, every additional dollar of income is taxed at 35.6 percent— 28 percent federal and 7.6 percent Social Security. If you drive a typical 13,000 miles a year at 15 miles per gallon youll consume 867 gallons of fuel that will cost about $1,257. Drive a 30 mile per gallon car instead (or cut your miles in half) and youll have fuel costs of $628. The pre-tax cost of the fuel saved— the gross amount youd have to earn— is $975.
That one decision is worth about 65 hours of work a year and is the equivalent of a 3.3 percent raise. There is opportunity here and rising energy prices mean it is a growing opportunity. All we have to do is think before we buy and think before we drive.
Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent to: Scott Burns, The Dallas Morning News, PO Box 655237, Dallas 75265; or faxed to (214)-977-8776; e-mail to email@example.com Check the website: "www.scottburns.com." Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.