Friday, May 04, 2007

Shut Off Your Cable Box -- And Other Adventures In Turning Green

The New York Times lead article in last Sunday’s Week In Review Carbon-Neutral Is Hip, But Is It Green?

One money quote, late in the article.

“There isn’t a single American household above the poverty line that couldn’t cut their CO2 at least 25 percent in six months through a straightforward series of fairly simple and terrifically cost-effective measures.”

We cut our electric bill by 60% in the last year by simply taking two actions (a) we switched to compact fluorescent bulbs where we could and (b) wherever possible, when we shut things off, we shut off the power strips, and/or pull the plugs out of the walls.

We’ve found it impossible, so far, to turn the desk-top computer off completely.
The rest of it is pretty easy.

Most of our savings has come from turning off the cable box completely when we are not watching television. All you need do is touch your cable box to see how much heat is being generated. It takes a few minutes to re-boot the cable box every time we turn it on. Once or twice a month, we find that the cable company has turned off our box completely, and we have to call them and ask them to reboot us.

The cable company tells us that if our cable box is not on during a “system wide patch,” then they have to turn off our cable box. It’s a nuisance, both for them and for us. However, a 60% savings on the Con Ed bill is a 60% savings. Our experience with this tells us that there has to be a more energy efficient way to make cable boxes.

We have switched to Con Ed Solutions , which means that we are paying our bill into a fund that ConEd (the electricity provider for New York City, and about the last people you would expect to be going green) uses to purchase electricity generated from environmentally friendly sources (about 65-75% hydropower, and the rest wind power). Last month, we switched to the wind-power only fund. We will now be paying an extra penny-and-a-half per kilowatt hour (less than $3.00 a month). We cut our bill by 60%, we did it at the higher rate, and we haven’t replaced the track lighting yet.

It’s the cable box.


I have been a big fan of carbon-offset programs, where people try to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that they use by driving cars, taking planes, cooling a home, and engaging in every day life, and buy “offsets” from one of the many (but not countless) companies that sell offsets. These offsets are not prohibitively expensive. Ours cost something like $39 a year. The companies then take the money and try to do some good for the environment.

We purchase our carbon offsets from The Conservation Fund . According to their website

“Your charitable contribution of approximately $5.00 per tree helps support the Fund’s Carbon Sequestration program – an effort to plant native trees to address climate change, protect wildlife habitat and enhance America’s public recreation areas. Since 2000, The Conservation Fund has restored 30,000 acres and planted more than 9 million trees through its carbon sequestration program. Over the next 100 years, these new forests will capture an estimated 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere.”

One of the reasons we like the Conservation Fund is that it appears that they do a lot of work in the Eastern United States, where we actually live.

We’ve also bought some carbon offsets from TerraPass . They take our money, give us a bumper sticker for our car, and invest in projects concentrating on wind energy, biomass (methane use), and industrial efficiency.

The New York Times article tends to denigrate the entire “carbon offset” movement as a complicated system of “indulgences” that allow people to continue to “take private jets and stretch limos.”


I am sure I speak for virtually all 250,000,000 of us private jet flying, stretch limo driving Americans. We will be happy to cut back on our addiction to these environmental dangers immediately if it helps save the planet. From now on I will limit my stretch limo driving to emergency trips to Price Club.

Beyond the cheap veiled pot shots (roughly ½ the article) at Al Gore and the other billion plus people who are trying to come to grips with climate change without throwing themselves off the roof, the New York Times article is right on one point. Not all carbon-offset providers provide equally good services. Like new markets everywhere, some are better than others.

The article references a report The Consumers Guide to Carbon Offsets , put together by a group called “Clean Air/ Cool Planet”. The group is unknown to me, but among the corporate sponsors of the report is Stonyfield Farms Organic Yogurt . Beyond having a tasty product, Stonyfield Farms helped turned us on to the entire carbon offset process in the first place.

The report lists 8 companies that they like more than the others. 5 of them are outside of the United States. The 3 in the United States are:

Climate Trust


Sustainable Travel/ My Planet

We will certainly take a look at these providers in our next purchase of carbon offsets.


The other point in the article, beyond debating, is that purchasing carbon-offsets is not going to be enough, and is probably not enough now.

Like everybody else, we are trying to do more. We just joined a fruit and vegetable coop which promises us to provide produce from local farmers (the East End of Long Island, I suppose).

And like everybody else, we just got here. When we renovated our coop in early 2005, we did not consider green issues at all. We put in halogen track lighting in our kitchen. There are no compact fluorescent alternatives to that yet. We have ceiling fans and light fixtures for which there are no compact fluorescent bulbs yet either. We did buy energy saver appliances, but solely in the name of saving money, but that’s it.

In late August of the same year, Hurricane Katrina changed my wife’s thinking 180 degrees. Of course, under the circumstances, my thinking changed a little as well.

The most important thing we do for the environment is live in a co-op in Queens where we are 2 minutes from the subway and 5 minutes from the railroad. I bought my current car (a Honda Accord -- no power windows) in October, 2001. It has just over 30,000 miles.

Obviously, living in an apartment will always be more environmentally efficient. We have over 100 families and only one lawn. There are limits, too. We can not unilaterally demand that the building immediately put up solar panels. It will also be a long time before the building is in a position to allow us to switch from plastic to paper in throwing out garbage.

All-in-all, the New York Times does its readers, and the planet, a tremendous disservice by suggesting that people who are beginning by buying carbon offsets are driven by sloth and the pleasure principle, and that the alternative to doing everything all at once is doing nothing at all.