My Sustainability Makeover

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Tompkins Weekly – October 18, 2010
by Gay Nicholson

houseI’ve been working on my “sustainability makeover” for several years now. I figure this is the kind of makeover that really matters – reconfiguring my life to align with the triple bottom line of environmental stewardship, healthy community, and economic stability. It’s probably going to take me another five years to get the rest of the elements in place, and since I’m not getting any younger, I have been making it my priority. At least I have had a good base to build upon. My old house is mostly insulated; the light bulbs and appliances in my home are highly efficient; the waste I send to the landfill is pretty minimal. But over the past decade, I’ve been feeling a growing motivation to make more of the changes that are necessary to craft a lifestyle that is sustainable for my community, our planet, and me.

I started with food. I’m a horticulturist by training, so I’ve been growing and buying local organic fruits and vegetables for decades, and switched several years ago to organic dairy products.

Next, I decided I had to get serious about an extreme makeover of my energy diet. The moral issues around the oil war in the Middle East, the Gulf oil spill, and hydrofracking for gas provide enough reasons on their own, but I confess to having additional selfish motives. I think it might turn out to be one of my soundest financial investments. Who can count on their retirement nest egg remaining viable? Ditto for the solvency of the social security system by the time I retire. One thing I can count on, I believe, will be the constantly increasing cost of fossil fuel-based energy.

I may not be able to control the amount of my retirement income, but I can make plans to limit the energy bills I’ll be paying in my elder years. My first step was to convert to a tankless hot water heater. I save at least $250 in propane every year just from that step. A couple years ago, I installed a photovoltaic array to power my lights and electrical devices (you can bet that the price of coal and natural gas will inch upwards along with oil in the coming years). With a low-interest loan and generous incentives and tax credits, at $7,000 my solar panels cost less than a used car and will power my home for 40-50 years.

These two steps will buffer me from high utility costs, but I know that space heating and transportation are really my two main dependencies on the petroleum economy. I now heat mainly with wood and a solar-powered electric heater, and hope to add biodiesel as my back-up fuel for the furnace. I’m still driving a gasoline-powered car, but I have enough power from my solar panels to run an electric car – though it might be several years before they’re for sale here in upstate NY.

My sustainability makeover is likely to be a work in progress for many more years, but I already feel better about my aging process. I’m grateful that I live in a community where I can easily locate the expertise, tools, and supplies needed for redesigning the basics of my food and energy systems –even on a modest income.

This coming weekend I will be attending the We Make Our Future conference hosted by Finger Lakes Bioneers and Sustainable Tompkins, and giving thanks to be with so many others working on their own sustainability makeovers. Friday and Saturday are packed with a mix of lectures, games, videos and music and on Sunday, we’ll share in the Awakening the Dreamer symposium, and go deeper into the relationships at the core of sustainable living. (You can read more, learn about our generous sponsors, and find all the details at

Together, we are making our future here in the Finger Lakes.

Gay Nicholson is President of Sustainable Tompkins

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