Cool City: My Big Fat Carbon Footprint

And a year of budget-conscious efforts to reduce it

Staff writer Katherine Gregor and her Prius
Staff writer Katherine Gregor and her Prius (Photo by Adeline Poris)

It started when the lightbulb went on.

I'm speaking of my first compact fluorescent lightbulb, the newfangled squiggly kind that saves energy. Reporting on the launch of the Austin Climate Protection Plan last February, I researched national efforts to get Americans to reduce their energy use – and thus greenhouse-gas emissions – by making easy lifestyle changes like switching to CFLs. Mayoral policy aide Matt Watson turned me on to, named for the amount of time it takes to change a bulb. The campaign's premise: If you can get someone to make one tiny behavioral change – buying an energy-efficient lightbulb – you start them on the path to making other shifts that support climate protection. That sounded like a good idea for Americans. For Austinites. And, I finally realized ... for me.

I'll admit I blanched at dropping $12 on that first twin-pack of CFL spirals. But the package said each bulb would save me $54 on my energy bill over its 10,000-hour life. That long-term perspective won over my reflexively frugal resistance to spending more now – an inner conflict that's only intensified as I've weighed other green investments.

The pleasure from taking that first energy-efficiency toke soon led me to try harder things. One day at HEB, I saw cloth shopping bags by the checkout counter and sprang on impulse for 20 dollars' worth – five big bags to hoist many a major household shop. I felt embarrassed using them at first, like some radical granola-cruncher making trouble for the poor bag boy. But in recent months, the cause has been championed by local activists (, the city of Austin, and Keep Austin Beautiful's campaign Austin's Got a Brand New Bag ( Now I see plenty of other folks schlepping cloth bags beside me – especially at HEB, Target, Walgreens, and Whole Foods, all campaign partners of KAB. All these partner stores now sell cloth bags for just $1 – ah, the price of being an early adopter.

Cool City: My Big Fat Carbon Footprint

Aware that my 15-year-old HVAC unit would need to be replaced soon, I decided next to explore Austin Energy's Home Perform­ance With Energy Star Rebate Power Saver Pro­gram. After getting more than $1,600 in rebates, I paid $5,600 net to participating company Strand Brothers – almost precisely what my new energy-efficient HVAC unit would have cost alone. But by participating in the program, I got a slew of home energy-efficiency improvements essentially free: compre­hen­sive duct repair and sealing, scads of attic insulation, fresh caulking and weather stripping, a radiant barrier in the attic. (The program can also help pay for solar screens, window film, or low-emissivity glass replacement windows.) It's paid off: My utility bills have tracked consistently lower. An energy audit showed that in seven years, my household utility savings would completely pay back the $5,600 investment – even if I hadn't needed a new HVAC. I figure I came out way ahead.

Once you crunch the numbers for yourself – using the online calculators at – you plainly see that improved energy-efficiency lowers your total cost of homeownership. (Which is why, reporting on the city's Energy Efficiency Retrofit Task Force, I've been mystified by opponents' claims that "protecting affordability" works in the other direction.) Austin Energy also provides low-interest loans to cover the cost (for both homes and rental properties). Monthly, the energy-bill savings can exceed the loan payment – while increasing the value of your home.

When Austin Energy's GreenChoice program reopened for esidential subscribers this spring, it fit with my new m.o. to sign up on day one – and support the utility's investment in clean, renewable wind energy. In the short term, that increased my monthly energy bill by about $10 to $15. But if history is any guide, the locked-in rate will soon prove a bargain, secured through 2022. By the time my 15-year-old refrigerator died (yes, it's been an expensive year), it had become a reflexive no-brainer to go Energy Star appliance shopping. The bright-yellow Energy Guide label inside the fridge I selected showed it would use 442 kilowatt hours per year, at an estimated $40 cost – on the low side of the 405 to 527 kWh range for similar models.

Going for green-lifestyle broke, I also indulged myself in a shiny new Toyota Prius. The dumpy old minivan was getting 15 miles per gallon; the nifty hybrid is averaging 45. According to the comparative calculator at, the switch will save me $26,667 in fuel costs over 10 years – almost exactly the price of the well-equipped new hybrid, with taxes and title. (That's assuming 15,000 miles driven annually at $4 per gallon.) By using the AirCheckTexas Repair and Replacement Assistance Program – for which Travis and Williamson Co. residents qualify, due to our lousy air with high ozone levels – I got a $3,500 check toward the hybrid, plus the satisfaction of taking my higher-emitting 10-year-old vehicle permanently off the road. (See for program details, which include household income restrictions.)

Next up in homeowner hell: a roof replacement, necessitated by the recent hailstorm. Thanks to screwing in that first squiggly lightbulb, I now can't call a roofer, of course, until I've researched the most energy-efficient, solar-reflective materials. Anyone out there have a recommendation – and a program to help pay for them?

Send your own Austin carbon-footprint-reducing story to And check out the new Austin Climate Protection Plan website at The "What You Can Do" page suggests actions to take now. The site also links to a wealth of national resources, including carbon-footprint calculators (a local version is in research and development).

Shine a Light

How many Texans does it take to ... make a dent in global warming? Since Jan. 1, 2007, we've screwed in 17,609,431 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (ranking us No. 6 among states), according to The program tracks all purchases of the luminous squigglies nationally, by bar-code data. By making the switch, Texans have prevented over 7,250 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, equivalent to taking 115,436 cars off the road. Residents of Austin and Round Rock alone have bought 1,252,722 bulbs (city ranking only No. 68), the equivalent of not burning over 120 million pounds of dirty coal. That promotes clean air, too – while saving some $36,816,398 in collective energy costs. Visit the informative Light Bulb Guide pages on the Environmental Defense Fund website ( for CFL-buying and use tips. – K.G.

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