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California and the West

Proving the Power of Conservation

Students in an energy-conscious house at at Humboldt State get all the electricity they need from innovative technology-- and a little pedal power. They use only 4% as much as the average home.


ARCATA, Calif. — Derek Toups knows the daily drill of living in one of America's most energy-stingy homes: If he wants to watch television or run the blender to whip up a batch of homemade almond milk, he doesn't just press a button, he first gets on a bicycle.

To catch the news the other morning, Toups hopped onto a recumbent bike in his living room. Peddling effortlessly, he calmly supplied a bit of human power to a small battery that, in turn, ran the TV.

He and two other Humboldt State students who live in the 10-room hillside home are part of a 20-year-old experiment that has evolved into a national showcase for conservation and renewable energy methods. From humble beginnings, students have fashioned a simple can-do statement about how Californians can begin to dig themselves out of their energy hole.

The 70-year-old house, now known as the Humboldt State University Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, contains scores of often-whimsical energy-saving devices, many the results of erstwhile student projects. They include solar roof panels, handmade thermal curtains that provide twice the insulation of double-paned windows, a heat-producing greenhouse and metal-insulated kitchen hotbox that cuts stove time in half. To run their outdoor generator, students use biodiesel--a fuel made from used cooking oil from the university cafeteria.

The results: Each month, the house uses only 4% of the electricity consumed by the average single-family home: 22.5 kilowatts, compared to 533.

The program, staffed each year with three live-in students, a maintenance staff of 15 and numerous volunteers, sponsors tours of the demonstration home, along with energy workshops for residents of this university town 275 miles north of San Francisco.

They're visited by countless alternative energy advocates and have traded conservation tips with groups in such developing countries as Cuba and Nicaragua.

Toups, a 25-year-old New Orleans native, looks at his little leg-powered TV and sees the future: "People in fitness centers line up to use exercise bikes and watch TV--so it makes sense to have something where they can power their own sets. You could do a lot with that energy."

There's a strong sense of 1960s idealism at work here. The students don't do in-your-face protests of selfish consumers. Instead, they have created a community that revolves around a life of energy conservation they'd like to see others emulate, even if it only means buying a few energy saving light bulbs.

"Nothing blew my mind like living in this house," said Sean Armstrong, a former program participant who is co-writing a book about the home. "Before I came here I was this environmental activist who tried to stop the things I thought were wrong. But this house was a chance to live the solution--and opportunities like that aren't too common in our society."

Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, said the students are proving that energy use can be slashed with less sacrifice than people fear.

"They're getting the message across [that] the utilities can't: that you can conserve power without huddling in a corner shivering. These students are as comfortable as people living in most homes."

This winter, with temperatures here dipping toward freezing many nights, the students' monthly utility bills have ranged from $10 to $25--for natural gas to run their kitchen stove and water heater.

The one-story house with its wood-burning heater is so self-sufficient that it's no longer even connected to the state's power grid. Ten years ago, in a gesture of energy independence, students held a rooftop ceremony at which they snipped the Pacific Gas & Electric connecting wires.

But with new technology that allows solar-heated homes to pump unused energy back to the grid, students plan to reconnect to the state system as a way to help the university reduce its power bills. The move will be aided by new photovoltaic roof panels that will increase their generated solar energy eightfold.

The program was born in 1981 when an idealistic group of students persuaded university officials to allow them to repair an old home that had been slated for demolition and establish an energy research center there.

Raising their own money, the students added the first of what would over the years become dozens of energy-efficient flourishes: a dry compost toilet and an adjacent solar-heated greenhouse that helped warm the home over the Northern California winter.

"We looked at that old house as our laboratory," recalled Kirk Girard, an original program member who is now community development services director for Humboldt County.

"In the end, we saw a light left on in a vacant room as chewing up valuable energy and affecting the entire balance of where we lived."

As interest soared in the program, school officials formed a steering committee to select--from among applicants nationwide--three student directors each year to live at the demonstration house.

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