Wooster: Sustainability is central to both Fred Michel’s work and his way of life — so much so that he’s gone well beyond the norm to reduce his family’s carbon footprint.
Michel, a biosystems engineer on the Ohio State University faculty, has long been interested in environmental issues, particularly the effects of carbon emissions from sources such as vehicles and power plants. His concern for the earth drives his work at OSU’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center on composting, biofuels production and the development of U.S.-grown sources of natural rubber.
It also pushes him to live in a more sustainable way. Michel has made a number of modifications to his home and car to decrease his family’s energy use, rely more on renewable forms of energy and reduce the carbon emissions the family is responsible for producing.
What he hasn’t modified, however, is the way the family of five lives. “We’re living the same way our neighbors do, but we’re probably using half as much energy,” he said.
Michel said he and his wife, Linda, had been making small changes to their 2,100-square-foot home ever since they bought it in 1999, such as replacing worn-out appliances with Energy Star models. But a 2007 sabbatical stint at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado kicked his efforts into high gear. The work he saw there prompted him to learn more about reducing energy use and relying more on renewable sources as ways of harnessing climate change.
His resolve was intensified in 2010 when his building at OARDC was destroyed by a tornado, a storm he considers an example of the extreme weather events tied to climate change.
Today the Michels’ home gets about 75 percent of its electricity from 32 solar panels in two rooftop arrays, one on the house and one on the garage. On a cloudy morning earlier this month when only Michel was home, the panels were producing about 700 watts of electricity at the same time the house was using about 800.
Almost all the lighting in the house is LEDs, including a pendant light over the kitchen table that puts out the same amount of light as a 75-watt incandescent bulb but uses less than one-tenth the energy. Even the outdoor Christmas lights around the doorway and the two garage doors are LED.
Michel said he started changing to LED lights when their price dropped to about $10 and has picked up the pace now that they’ve improved in quality and gotten even a little cheaper. The family has also reduced its need for artificial lighting by adding a skylight above the second-floor landing and tubular skylights in two upstairs bathrooms.
They cut their lawn with a mower outfitted with a solar charger, which Michel said mows the entire one-third acre lawn on one charge. Not only is it quieter and less smelly and polluting than a gas-powered mower, but Michel said it also works better because its blade spins faster than a conventional mower’s.
Even Michel’s SUV runs on solar power. He modified his Ford Escape hybrid by mounting a solar panel on the roof and adding a 4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery to the 1-kwh battery that came with the car.
After charging for a full day in the sun, the car-top panel produces only enough electricity to power the car for about two miles, he said. But together, the two batteries provide about the same amount of electricity as the battery in a plug-in hybrid — enough to power his short commute to work and trips around town, which is mainly what the vehicle is used for, he said.
All the electricity the Michels use comes from renewable sources, either the solar energy from their panels or wind-generated energy supplied through American Electric Power’s Eco-Advantage Electricity Plan. Their electric bill averages a stingy $25 a month, Michel said.
And their environmentalism doesn’t stop there. They also compost their kitchen waste, control their heating and air conditioning with a programmable thermostat and heat their water with a tankless heater, although Michel isn’t sure yet whether the heater’s higher cost will be offset in the long run by the natural gas it saves.
Michel even uses an exercise bike outfitted with a 12-volt generator to power the family’s miniature Christmas village display, just for fun.
He uses software to track the family’s energy production and use and to estimate the carbon emissions that result from its actions. The family members have made some modifications in the way it they live, such as traveling less by plane and line-drying clothes instead of using their electric clothes dryer. But Michel said those changes haven’t affected their lifestyle in any significant way. Even his children — Polly, 15; Jon, 13; and Hayden, 9 — are accepting and even enthusiastic about the way the family lives.
“We don’t really do anything extreme,” he said.
Cost of changes
Their efforts have paid off for the environment in a big way, he said. He calculates their carbon dioxide emissions from nonrenewable energy sources have dropped by about half.
The changes haven’t come cheaply. His two solar arrays — an 18-panel system installed in 2009 and a 14-panel array installed this year — cost a total of $23,617 after tax incentives and rebates. But when Michel subtracts the savings on his electric bill, his solar energy credits and the increase in his home’s resale value, he predicts he will have paid back the newer system by about 2017 and will be $4,633 ahead on the original, more expensive system by 2019.
Even if he doesn’t figure in the increase in his home’s value, he expects to recover all but $1,767 of the cost of the first system by 2019 and to pay off the second by around 2027.
He and his wife plan to stay in the house long-term, he said, so the upfront investment made sense for them. Still, he recognizes such a big outlay is hard for some people to make. That’s why he’d like to see local governments offer financing programs that make the expense for energy-saving improvements easier to bear, such as allowing a homeowner to borrow the money and then pay it back over a number of years through an assessment on his or her property tax.
And he believes even small, fairly inexpensive changes such as changing to LED lighting can make a significant difference.
Michel said he’s still looking for ways to reduce the family’s energy use and carbon footprint, but it’s getting harder to find changes to make. The Michels have made some improvements in insulation and air sealing, and they’re still trying to fix an air leak around the fireplace.
“The next thing I want to do,” he said with a laugh, “is make a solar-powered hot tub.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.