As attention-grabbing slogans go, “More green in your pocket and community” is not too shabby.
“Money always talks,” said aFewSteps.org Technical Team Chair David Director, smiling knowingly outside the Swarthmore SEPTA station with Residential Team Chair and Secretary Beth Murray on a recent sunny afternoon.
“People aren’t motivated sufficiently by a desire to clean up the environment,” Director said. “Everybody says, ‘Yeah I’d love to clean up the environment, love to clean up the air, but I’ve got more important things.’ And everybody does. But when you say, ‘There’s money to be saved,’ then people listen.”
Director, of Nether Providence, and Murray, of Swarthmore, said they hope that message translates through various education and outreach efforts aFewSteps has undertaken in recent years — and that it comes free of the stigma against certain practices that some in the green sector might have imparted in the past.
“(We) absolutely never want to make people feel like they should be doing something other than what they’re doing,” Murray said. “We want to talk to them about what their options are, what they could be thinking about.”
To that end, Murray said aFewSteps has sponsored various workshops, begun working with local houses of worship in a “Biggest Loser” format to cut energy consumption, and has a cadre of “sustainability coaches” with backgrounds in fields like engineering and architecture that can help homeowners put together an action plan aimed at reducing overall energy use.
Unlike a typical energy audit, Director said the coaches might spend two or three hours going over a broader range of ideas — everything from installing energy-saving light bulbs to the food in the pantry or recycling efforts. Anything, in short, that might shave a few wasteful kilowatt hours off the grid, as well as the PECO bill.
All of these efforts are in line with aFewSteps overarching goal, which is to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels among the four communities making up the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District by 2020.
The organization grew out of an effort in 2009 to perform a greenhouse gas emission study in Nether Providence. Director said that data was of little use, though, because it was skewed by the large, energy-consuming schools in the township.
An $80,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to the four municipalities making up the district allowed for a more intensive study conducted by Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities and environmental advisory councils for each of the municipalities.
The resulting Climate Change Action Plan, presented in early 2011, established the 20 percent figure and provided a series of steps that could be taken to achieve that goal, but Director said the quasi-governmental nature of the appointed EAC board members restricted just how much they could accomplish.
“I think really what we initially saw our job as was to be the group that implemented that action plan, because they were done, they wrote it, but then it was going to sit on a shelf,” said Murray.
“And the municipalities didn’t have money to spend on it,” added Director. “Nether Providence was one of the first communities in the Delaware Valley to do an independent study of greenhouse gases. It was important to do it, and having done it, that was a step, but there were more steps to take, as there always will be.”
Hence the name of the organization, and the idea that each home, business, school, local government and place of worship can take a few steps of their own.
Having established the nonprofit, they now needed to actually do something to further its goals. Though it has a fairly skeleton crew keeping the wheels grinding — a handful of board members, occasional summer interns and about 20 volunteers putting in time when they can — aFewSteps has managed to produce several opportunities for locals to reconsider their energy usage.
The nonprofit recently partnered with the Swarthmore Historical Society on a tour of local homes, this time with a focus on how historical houses have been updated with “green” features. Numerous pamphlets on display along the tour provided visitors with information on how and where to plant shade trees, myriad lighting options that use less energy and last longer, as well as a step-by-step instructions on switching energy generators to wind or solar for the home.
Murray said the last is probably one of the fastest and easiest ways for residents to meaningfully impact greenhouse gas emissions, though people likely are not aware the option exists. For her, the process took all of 90 seconds — she just plugged her name, address and account number into a window on the PECO website, then selected a new provider from a list. The electricity is still delivered through PECO lines, so Murray said there is no change whatsoever for the consumer in terms of delivery.
Using a wind or solar generator might cost a little more per month, but Murray said that can also be counterbalanced with a programmable thermostat that can automatically adjust temperatures throughout the day.
“It’s almost a painless way to cut your heating bill by 10 or even 20 percent,” she said. “You set it to go down 10 degrees in the eight hours you’re at work, and then it comes back up, and then it goes down 10 degrees while you’re in bed, and you don’t even notice any difference.”
Director said he has seen his own electric bills go up by about $50 per year as a result of switching to a renewable resource for electricity generation. But taking a few other simple steps, such as monitoring usage to spot waste, has reduced his bill by about $1,000 annually at the same time.
“So I’m not complaining,” he said.
At the same time, Director noted that each person who switches over to a renewable resource adds to the number of turbines or solar panels necessary to meet that demand, meaning additional infrastructure development. It is likely the most direct way consumers can “vote with their feet” to grow renewable energy generation.
In its 2014 Annual Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that domestic crude oil production will level off and decline after 2020. Domestic natural gas production will meanwhile increase 56 percent between 2012 and 2040, when it is expected to overtake coal as the No. 1 provider of U.S. electric power generation.
While total U.S. primary energy consumption is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2012 and 2040, the EIA estimates that the overall fossil fuel share of total primary energy demand will decline only 2 percent over that same period — from 82 percent to 80 percent.
The U.S. Department of Energy is meanwhile hopeful that its “Sunspot Initiative” will result in solar power accounting for 14 percent of the country’s electricity needs by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050. Recent drops in the cost for solar generation indicate the program will hit its 2020 goals, according to a recent outlook issued by the Department of Energy.
Just in the time since the initial Nether Providence study was conceived, Murray and Director noted the country appears to be more accepting of both climate change as an established fact and renewable resources as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
They are hoping to find new ways of increasing awareness about energy usage and the potential for innovations to impact pocketbooks in the community without the use of abstract terms like “carbon footprint” that might turn off or confuse consumers.
Some ideas being floated include making two-minute YouTube videos on simple steps individuals can take to change their energy consumption, such as swapping out LED light bulbs that cost about $1.75 per year to power and last 20 years for incandescent bulbs that cost $11 to power and burn out more or less annually.
Murray noted that these money-saving tips seem to be especially effective if they are applied directly to neighbors. If people are told “the Joneses” are saving 20 percent on their energy bills, she said, they are more likely to try to keep up.
While no workshops are currently planned, Murray and Director warmed to the idea of extending the “Biggest Loser” challenge to residences or businesses. Director also would like to see more schools installing solar panels on typically bountiful and unused rooftop real estate.
Whatever the next five years hold for aFewSteps as it strives toward its 2020 goal, Director said the idea of simply doing what you can will remain a mainstay of the group’s message.
“We like to talk about using energy with intention,” he said. “You turn on a light because you want to see. Turn on the light if you need to see. Go for it. Don’t get nuts. Don’t get crazy about it. ... Deal with the things that you can deal with, as opposed to the ones that you can’t, and feel good about what you accomplish.”