RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Energy is More than Oil

It's a happy event when Earth Day comes at the same time as a spike in energy prices. Sort of like an eclipse of the sun, it suggests that certain rhythms must be taken seriously. In the case of celebrating earth's gifts and worrying about energy prices, we have to believe that even the dullest American will see the importance in conservation.

It's easy to forget that energy has costs. All day long, we use appliances, turning them on and off at whim -- lights when it's dark, TV when we're bored. Some appliances turn themselves on and off without us -- we instruct the water heater, refrigerator and furnace one time, then we hope they do their jobs forever.

For every bit of power, we create environmental challenges that will be here long after the lights and TV are dark. Coal-burning plants create smoke and steam that rain down everywhere. So much mercury is coming from Missouri coal plants that it has poisoned the flesh of fish from the Missouri River, making it unsafe to eat what we catch.

Nuclear plants have problems, too. No one has quite figured out what to do with the waste. The latest plan is to deposit it in Yucca Mountain, Nev. So, very soon, truckloads of nuclear waste from the east could be traveling down an interstate near you.

The pollution dilemma is compounded when we consider that sources of fossil fuels like coal and oil are limited. Some experts say we have already peaked and are on the decline. So we're trying to conserve and, after that, we're looking for alternatives.

Fifty years ago, most homesteads used alternative sources of energy. We hung clean clothes on the line so the sun and wind could dry them. We burned wood to keep the house warm and do our cooking. We stored potatoes and squash in an unheated cellar and salted down meats to keep them edible. Every farm had a hand pump in the yard, and most had a windmill to pump water for the stock tank.

Homes and barns were built to take advantage of the weather. Sited just so, a building on a rise could capture the breeze, and rows of evergreens on the north kept the winter winds at bay.

We have lost much of that knowledge, but in its place are new technologies to capture the power of the sun and wind. Many of these technologies have been around since the 1970s and have had considerable testing by consumers. Today, by using these new strategies, we can cut the pollution created by electric plants and we can also save money.

The simplest technology is direct -- using sun power to heat water, for example. Many campers own hot-water heaters that hang in a tree, holding water for dishwashing or a hot shower. For the home, solar hot-water heaters have been available since the 1970s.

Other homeowners use solar gain to heat the house, at least when the sun is out. By opening curtains on the south side of the house and shutting things tight everywhere else, free solar heat can be captured to help the furnace all day. If the house is designed with a bank of south-facing windows and some kind of heat storage, the furnace may be left out completely.

Cooling is often a bigger consideration than heating. Digging part of the house into a hill is a popular strategy for cooling a building. Another idea is putting grass or a garden on the roof to absorb the sunlight and rain. The soil and plants provide a thick layer of insulation and some beauty and interest.

In Chicago, visitors in high buildings can look down on rooftop prairies and patios. Rooftop beekeeping has become a trendy pastime. Of course, there must be planning which includes drainage and waterproofing.

Good planning is, in fact, the key to success when it comes to alternative energy use. For example, windmills are becoming popular for isolated homesteads because they are sometimes less expensive than running electric lines, but the homeowner needs to take some time to find a site where wind is predictable. In many states, Departments of Natural Resources have worked out wind maps to help owners determine the best sites.

Unlike the windmills of the past, which usually pumped water, the new ones charge batteries so that the electricity can be stored. Solar collectors can also be used to charge batteries and run equipment later. Batteries have improved remarkably in the last 10 years, so they now take less space, are lighter, last longer and are more efficient.

For the homeowner who wants to incorporate some alternative energy from a windmill or solar collector in a standard house, the experts advise experimenting with just one room. By listing the number of lights and appliances in that room, it is easy to determine how much power you will need to produce and store.

Earth Day is coming. Use the event to plan a new energy future for you and your family.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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