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Stumbling Eagerly Towards Sustainability: the 2000-watt Approach to Responsible Global Citizenship

By Stewart Herman | Published: April 14, 2022

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of harvesting an endless flow of clean energy from an inexhaustible source—the sun. Fifty years ago, while doing relief work in Vietnam, I tried to build a solar collector from rebar and roofing tin. During my younger years, I also learned another edge to the issue—energy conservation.  I travelled and studied in Europe and couldn’t help noticing how much less energy Europeans seemed to need, compared to Americans with our fossil-fuel happy ways. 

So, I did what I could—stuffing insulation into our house in Fargo, trying an electric car and so on. But I lacked a frame for connecting my efforts to what the world needed. A breakthrough moment occurred  six years ago when I visited the BioHaus at Waldsee, the German Language Village, which is the first certified PassivHaus in North America. I learned from Edwin Dehler-Seter how drastically a structure could reduce its need for energy.

Somewhat later I learned how such an effort would register in terms of global sustainability—thanks to Stefan Tanner, the architect of the BioHaus, who alerted me to the 2000 Watt Society that spells out a personal target framed by the world’s need for sustainable energy use. The target is simple and quantitative: I should consume no more than 2000 watts of energy per hour—4800 watts per day. Achieving that rate of usage would remove my embarrassment at claiming to be a global citizen while using more than my share of the world’s energy. 

A bar graph comparing Americans' energy use (very big) to the 2000 Watt Society's targets (very small)
According to this chart, Americans use energy at six times what is sustainable for the earth. 

So, how could I measure my energy use relative to this 2000-watt standard? I have devised a method which takes only a few minutes: look at my utility bill to see how much electricity I use per month. Multiply by three to include all the activities I do, the embodied energy in what I buy, and so forth. If you have gas heat, multiply by five.  The method is crude enough to make a data scientist blanch, but it is quick!  (I am an impatient American, after all.)  Bear with me while I do the numbers …

Over the past five years, my use of electricity has averaged 680 Kilowatt-hours (kWhrs) per month, according to my utility. A kilowatt-hour is like an odometer reading in a car—a measure of how far you have gone in consuming electricity. Then I do some simple math.  Multiplied by three, my total consumption of energy runs perhaps 2040 kWh per month.  My allowance is 2000 watts per hour, which is like a speedometer reading—showing how fast you are travelling, but not how far. 2000 watts per year translates into 1,440,000 watts per month. A watt is one thousandth of a kilowatt, so I drop the last three zeros. My allowance is 1,440 kWh per month. So, I am over the allowance by 600 kWh (or 600,000 watts) per month. Clearly, I have a way to go, but I am consoled by the fact that my use is far less than the U.S. average of 12,000 watts per hour (or 8,640,000 watts per month). 

If you have an all-electric house, as I do, you might find your monthly use of electricity to be considerably higher than my 680-kWh monthly average. 3000 kWh is not uncommon. The reason is that I live in a net-zero house—one which produces more energy than it uses.   That permits me to count only the watt hours that I must buy from the utility.  Of the total solar energy that the house produces, it consumes about one-quarter and sells the rest to the utility. I must buy electricity to make up the deficit on cloudy days—about 8160 kWh per year. That is the number I work with when calculating my score on the 2000-watt scorecard (680 x 12).  

Could I not bash that monthly 680 kWh down further, to bring down my total energy consumption of 2040 kWh under the 2000-watt allowance of 1440 kWh? Here a confession is in order: I am not sure I can. My net-zero house has another goal besides energy efficiency. My wife and I wish to live comfortably in our retirement. Our house is relatively large (3000 square feet) and was redesigned and renovated to provide a pleasing living space.   

In my next blogpost, I will explain how we arrived at this combination of attractiveness and efficiency in our renovated house, which has won a few awards and is certified LEED Platinum as well as net zero.

About the Author

Stewart Herman, seated in front of a construction sign advertising LEED FOR HOMES

Stewart Herman has divided his life between teaching, raising a family, writing, traveling, and advocacy for solar energy. He taught religious ethics for almost three decades at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, after having spent half a dozen years writing books and articles on energy and environmental matters in New York City. Until recently he was an avid trekker—honoring the earth through the low impact of his footsteps, whether on his own in places like Crete or Ladakh, or with students in China, Jordan and the Sinai.  

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