The gist:

Shifting to renewable energy sources and reducing the amount of energy we waste are the keys to reducing the bloated impacts of industrial nations on the climate, our pocketbooks, and our security.

The details:

The humble clothesline is simple, silent, and completely nonpolluting. It takes few materials to manufacture and require no electricity or fuel to operate. Line-dried clothes smell fresh and have no static.

And by letting the sun and wind do for free what dryers need electricity or gas for, clotheslines also save money.

Clotheslines aren’t for everyone, of course–particularly in the wet Northwest–but they’re one example of the power of renewable energy sources–and how little this power is counted. Although solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass power officially contribute less than 2 percent to current global energy supplies, we already use these renewable energy sources–the sun, above all–in unacknowledged ways.

Solar designer-philosopher Steve Baer has dubbed this “the clothesline paradox”: dry your laundry in an electric dryer, and the electricity you use is counted in conventional energy statistics, but dry your clothes on a clothesline instead, and the solar and wind energy you harness is never measured.

The sun, of course, also heats our entire world from about 400 F (240 C) below zero to livable temperatures, but we only count as “energy use” the energy required to heat or cool the insides of our buildings the last few degrees to room temperature.

Solar energy

There are many other ways to tap into the renewable energy all around us. Considering the energy used to heat water, washing a load of clothes in warm water actually uses about twice as much energy as heating the load in a dryer. (Water heating accounts for nearly 20 percent of home energy use in the United States).

Rooftop solar water heaters use the sun to heat and natural convection to pump water into a home water tank. It can take several years to recoup the initial costs of these simple but pricey systems, depending on energy prices and how much sun smiles on your home. Israel has installed nearly a million solar hot water heaters, which now provide hot water for four out of five Israeli homes.

Homes and businesses can be (and are) heated, cooled, lit, and powered by solar energy in its various forms. “Passive solar” design, such as well-placed windows and overhangs that let in warm light from the low-hanging winter sun but not from the high summer sun, can minimize or eliminate the need for heating and air-conditioning. Even in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, passive solar design can supply 65 percent of a home’s space heating. As an ad for Velux windows says of sunlight, “It traveled millions of miles to get here. The least you can do is let it in.”

The power of wind

Wind power provides less than 1 percent of world electricity, but capacity is expanding at a rate of 25 percent per year, making wind the world’s fastest growing energy source. In some regions of Europe, wind power already supplies 5 to 10 percent of electricity.

The United States was the world leader in installed wind power until recently, but pressures to cut costs in the newly deregulated utility industry have led many electric utilities to slash their spending on renewable energy and conservation.

Modern wind turbines are much quieter than their predecessors; most people cannot hear them 300 yards away. Some nature lovers fear that wind farms will endanger bird populations, but recent studies in Europe have concluded that well-designed and well-sited wind farms pose little risk to birds.

Realizing the promise of renewables will take more than concerned individuals using clotheslines or rooftop solar panels. Building market volumes enough to bring prices down will require large-scale investments.

Shifting to renewable energy sources and reducing the amount of energy we waste are the keys to reducing the bloated impacts of industrial nations on the atmosphere.

Individuals have usually lacked the power to choose renewable energy (except with actions like drying clothes in the sun), but that may soon change.

Deregulation of the utility industry, if it doesn’t extinguish renewable providers first, may soon allow electricity customers in much of North America to choose “green” power, often for a few dollars more per month. Several companies began offering “coal- and nuke-free” electricity at premium prices to test markets in 1998.

More information:

Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet: Everyday Things to Help Solve Global Warming

Sightline’s climate policy project

March 7, 2006