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Published: Wednesday, 10/15/2008

ON THIN ICE

Energy independence possible, but elusive goal

Area residents succeed in reducing emissions

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ralph Semrock's home in Ottawa County, about 10 miles east of Oregon, has extensive insulation, energy-efficient appliances, and solar panels and a wind turbine to generate power. Ralph Semrock's home in Ottawa County, about 10 miles east of Oregon, has extensive insulation, energy-efficient appliances, and solar panels and a wind turbine to generate power.
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Last of four parts

It would be nice to think more people could do what Ralph Semrock did.

The Ottawa County man built a three-story, 2,440-square-foot house out in the country that's earth-bermed and creates its own electricity.

It also uses energy so efficiently he is able to sell his surplus power to FirstEnergy Corp. His dream is to someday wean himself off the region's electrical grid.

Located 10 miles east of Oregon, the house has energy-efficient windows, extensive foam insulation, a rain garden, and heat radiating from below a 7-inch concrete basement floor, as well as its own wind turbine and solar panels. It was designed by Mr. Semrock, an Owens Community College professor who owned a solar energy business from 1978 to 1981.

It would be nice to think more people could do what Al Compaan did, too.

READ MORE: On Thin Ice -- How global warming is changing our world

The chairman of the University of Toledo s physics and astronomy department built a 2,800-square-foot house in western Lucas County s Spencer Township that also generates more electricity than he uses.

His surplus also gets sold to FirstEnergy.

Though it has high cathedral ceilings and central air conditioning, Mr. Compaan s house gets passive solar heat from south-facing windows.

It is powered largely by an array of 96 solar panels on its roof, and has energy-efficient appliances and a high-efficiency furnace.

He spends less than the cost of an iPod for an entire year s worth of electricity.

He even has rigged the current in his house so that he could run his house off his truck for up to five days if the grid ever goes down for an extended time, as it did during the historic blackout of 2003 that left much of the Midwest, the Northeast, and parts of Canada without power.

Running his house off his truck? Yes, that s because Mr. Compaan converted an old truck into an electric vehicle. He has gone years without buying gasoline for his daily commutes to and from campus. He can run the house off his truck batteries, if necessary.

Mr. Semrock and Mr. Compaan are just two examples of area residents who have greatly reduced their carbon footprint while achieving partial energy independence.

Carbon footprint is the term for measuring your personal impact on climate change.

They spent thousands of dollars. But the reality is most Americans aren t likely to take on climate change to that degree, whether it s because they can t afford it or they just think it s silly.

One way to get started is by going to www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html, a link to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web page that calculates the amount of greenhouse gases individual households are responsible for contributing to the atmosphere.

Factors such as vehicle miles driven, automobile fuel efficiency, home heating and cooling, and recycling routines are taken into account. Ideas are offered for conserving energy.

Here are a few other things you can do without spending a bundle:

• Replace traditional iridescent light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. They cost a little more, but have become more affordable in recent years, especially when purchased as a multipack. They also have become more reliable and last longer. The downside: They contain mercury and should be disposed of in accordance with regulations for mercury-containing products. Michigan residents take note: Starting Oct. 1, some 500,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs were being offered to state residents for 99 cents per bulb, thanks in part to a grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Turn off unnecessary lights, air conditioning and heat. This doesn't mean returning to pre-civilization days. But ask yourself: Are you really using all of the lights on at your home and business?

Remember that about 80 percent of the electricity used in Ohio and Michigan comes from coal-fired power plants, the greatest source of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Ditto for air conditioning and heat, even though much of the latter comes from cleaner-burning natural gas. If you don t need it, don t waste your money on it.

•Consider installing timers for your lights and a time-controlled thermostat for your home. You could save a lot of money and cut down on greenhouse gases by setting them for the normal hours you re home.

•Add insulation and check for air leaks from your home. Have an energy analysis done and see how you can make improvements, even if it s as simple as caulking windows. And consider installing more energy-efficient windows when it s time to replace the old ones.

Al Compaan of Spencer Township has solar panels on his home, which he uses to charge his battery-powered vehicle.
Al Compaan of Spencer Township has solar panels on his home, which he uses to charge his battery-powered vehicle.
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

• Buy locally grown food and products as much as possible. In supporting local growers and merchants, you create market disincentives for products to be shipped in from afar and cast a vote against the heat-trapping greenhouse gases expended to do that.

•Consider buying Energy Star products the next time you re in the market for new appliances. Energy Star is a voluntary U.S. EPA program, a rating system to highlight energy-saving refrigerators, dishwashers, and washers and driers.

Be wary, though: Although the agency stands behind the program, Consumer Reports said this month it has found many standards lax and tests out of date.

•Car-pool, ride share, walk, and bicycle whenever practical. In Copenhagen, a city that s bigger than Toledo yet smaller than Columbus, thousands of people ride bicycles at all times of day even to dinner and to late-night clubs.

Big cities such as Washington are now testing programs in which people ride bikes they rent for a day or a few hours.

•Consider upgrading to a hybrid when you re in the market for your next vehicle. Until then, keep your current car, truck, or SUV tuned up.

And don t forget the simple stuff, like keeping your tires inflated to their recommended pressure so you get optimum fuel efficiency.

•Support a wider use of clean, renewable energy. Consider installing a wind turbine or an array of solar panels, if it s allowed under your zoning code and is within your budget. Support legislation that promotes jobs in that sector.

This is where policy and leadership is important. This is where things make a difference, said Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University s Byrd Polar Research Center.

For more information, visit the following Web sites:

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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