Going Green

The City of Austin's Energy Programs Make it so easy

Photo Courtesy of Austin Energy
Photo Courtesy of Austin Energy

My little cinder-block cottage in Austin's Govalle neighborhood is the perfect palette for experiments in ecological dwelling. This is no paint-by-numbers affair, mind you; I intend to Jackson-Pollock the place. As I am a complete amateur at all things green, the very first thing I did was call up the city of Austin and learn about all the things I could get cheap or for free.

Power Partner Thermostat Installation

My old thermostat looked like a Star Trek artifact. If I set it at 82, it would ignore me and shudder down to 77. Within days, Austin Energy installed a spiffy new digital one -- absolutely free. It's top of the line; I can set my thermostat like an alarm clock, automatically heating or cooling the house at different temperatures according to my preprogrammed whims. Or the city's. Apparently, it can be controlled by radio from the mother ship. Every once in a while, Austin Energy cycles my air conditioning off to protect our city's grid from overheating.

Energy Star Appliance Rebates

Going Green
Photo by John Carrico

Throughout the year, Austin Energy offers rebates for Energy Star low-energy-use appliances. I went to Sears and got a front-loading washing machine for $1,000. Top-loaders use 40 gallons of drinkable water per load, but this gem uses only 15. I sent in my receipts, then got a check from the city for $350. Appliances rebates vary through the year: Sometimes it's low-flow toilets; sometimes it's new air conditioners. Check the city website (www.ci.austin.tx.us) to plan your upgrades.

GreenChoice: Wind Power

I'm now a Green Power Partner, which means I pay a teensy bit more on my electric bill to enjoy totally sustainable energy. My electricity is from wind only. Seventeen percent of Austinites are part of this GreenChoice program. Imagine if all of Austin got its electric power from wind, methane, and solar.

Native Landscaping

I wandered in rapture at Ted's Trees, a 14-acre nursery on Tillery Street, collecting all the shrubs, trees, and plants I wanted and spent only half of what they cost. How? These beauties were on the city's WaterWise list of low-water drinkers. I got three huge crepe myrtles, six mountain laurels, a carload of yucca and rosemary, more jasmine than I care to enumerate (these wild gals tend to get rambunctious), three Eve's Necklaces, a Burr Oak, and a tall Southern magnolia -- all for just about $700. They're all native plants that can withstand the heat and take a drought.

Composting & Dillo Dirt

Going Green
Photo by Kate X Messer

Food waste in landfills turns to methane gas and eats holes in the ozone. Composting these scraps reduces the load on landfills and feeds nutrients back to the soil. The Zilker Botanical Garden showcases a wide variety of composting systems. My favorite? A pile on the ground in an unobtrusive corner. It may attract a possum or two, but hey, everybody's gotta eat. Sheet composting is the method I am working with now: a way to turn a yard of Saint Augustine grass or weeds into a wonderful mulched planting bed. Start with cardboard boxes, and cover all the ground you want to transform. Add grass clippings, yard waste, compost, and let it sit. If you want to amp up the action, toss some Dillo Dirt into the mix. If you haven't met Dillo Dirt, you haven't met Austin. Our sewage sludge -- yes, that's what we flush -- is combined with all the yard clippings collected curbside. The mix gets hot-compsted up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, toasty enough to kill any pathogens, and voilà! -- Dillo Dirt! True recycling and delicious for your garden beds.

Free-Range Chickens

According to city laws, hens are allowed, but roosters are not. Here in East Austin, the birds are a familiar sight, strutting around inside fenced yards and gossiping away. Chickens simultaneously till and compost your soil and put you in touch with your food at the source. Chickens eat whatever I didn't finish for dinner, then make my breakfast. The cycle is complete. Right now I'm building them a new coop made entirely of found materials from local trash piles and construction Dumpsters. They'll have a skylight made of an intact car windshield and nest boxes of old dresser drawers. We'll be in chicken condo heaven.

Gray Water

Gray water isn't really gray. It's eco-code language for household water that is put to more than one use. As long as biocompatible soaps are used, water can be routed from the bath, the laundry, and the kitchen sink, straight out to the garden. There, it will nourish your landscaping, sink into the water table, and rejoin the natural cycle -- without ever seeing a molecule of chlorine, fluoride, or any other harsh chemicals.

Water Barrels

I've installed gutters around my casita, and I'm saving up the cash for a set of rain barrels. Since my family is a huge New Orleans tribe, I know now exactly how important it is to have a source of clean water should all municipal systems fail. Barrels with a screen on top to keep mosquitoes out and a hose bib attachment for watering cost about $125 retail. But Austin's WaterWise program sells them for $60.

Liquid Gold in the Garden

This may seem far-out, but it's as natural as breathing: Human pee is a free, nontoxic fertilizer for your garden! In Denmark, public bathrooms are constructed to filter urine into holding tanks. Farmers come from the countryside to pump it out, dilute with water, and add it to the fields -- pee is their nation's preferred fertilizer. You, too, can take a small step toward symbiosis with nature by keeping a pee bucket in the bathroom. Dilute it one to 10, then watch as your plants and trees have a party.

My house and I have grand visions for our energy efficiency in the coming years. Permaculture food gardens will be planted where the lawn has been sheet-composted over. My neighbor's abuela already has offered to share her secrets regarding grapefruit trees. And the kids on my block love to get their hands in dirt. Down the road, we'd like to take advantage of the city's solar panels rebate program. Once we've saved $5,000, we're going to make that electric meter run backward.

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