Gas and Electricity in Detroit

Our apartment is in an old building in midtown Detroit. I’m not exactly sure when it was built, but if I had to wager a guess I’d say probably 1920s or before. This guess is based on the fact that my dad’s house was built in the early 1900’s and there are a lot of similarities between our building and his house.

heating an old apartment in Detroit

The building is heated with radiators. I was really excited about living in a building heated by radiators when we first moved in because I tend to feel cold all the time, and radiant heat said to me “This building will be hot all winter long, in fact, you may very wastefully decide to open the windows in the middle of January to bring it back down to a comfortable temperature.” This turned out to be not the case. Our building is chilly all winter long. But, in addition to the radiators, all the units are also equipped with a gas fireplace. This allows us to give our apartment a warm glow on cold winter’s nights.

heating an old apartment in Detroit

Being conscientious about our energy use, we do try to limit our indulgence in the use of the fireplace to nights or weekends when it is quite cold outside.  The chill in our apartment generally isn’t too bad unless the temperature outside drops into the teens or below. We plastic over our windows to keep the drafts at bay. And, since we live on the top floor, we also get to reap the benefits of our lower level neighbors using their fireplaces. When we do use our fireplace we close all the doors to the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom so that we’re only heating up the living room and dining room.

We also try to be pretty conscious of the electricity we’re using as well. Admittedly, Husby is much better about this than I am. But generally, if we’re not using it, it’s off. And in many cases, not just off, but also unplugged. Unplugging our electronics prevents them from drawing phantom loads even while they are off.

Southeast Michigan is supplied its gas and electricity through DTE. DTE offers a program called Green Currents, which Husby and I have opted into. Basically, we pay a little extra per kilowatt-hour to get our energy from renewables rather than from coal and drilled natural gas.*

Currently in Michigan, the Green Currents program gets about 90% of their energy from bio gas, and 10% from wind power. Our energy costs a little bit more than it would if we weren’t a member of the Green Currents program, but spending the extra dollar or so each month helps us tell DTE that it is important to us that they continue to invest in renewable energy solutions, as well as helping to reduce the overall use of fossil fuels in Michigan. It’s one of the ways that Husby and I choose to vote with our dollars.

Bio gas is methane collected from cattle farms and landfills – both naturally occurring as a product of the breaking down of organic material.  When methane is freely released into the atmosphere it is a very potent greenhouse gas, but it is also a very efficient fuel. Methane produces more energy per unit than coal. When it is captured and burned for energy the by-products are carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is obviously also a greenhouse gas, although it is less potent than methane. So bio gas isn’t a perfect solution to reducing our carbon footprint, but it is a way to use energy from a more potent greenhouse gas and convert it into a less potent greenhouse gas.

*Being a member of the Green Currents program does not necessarily mean that the exact energy that we are using comes from bio gas and wind power, as these energy sources are currently limited by geographical area. It means that for every kw-h of energy that we use, DTE is supplying that much energy in bio gas and wind power to someone who lives in the areas that have access to these sources. It’s a matching program.

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A Bit of Background, Part 2

I mentioned in part 1 that living in the bush in Tanzania changed my post Peace Corps plans. When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 I began researching environmental and mechanical engineering graduate degree programs. The following is a mildly edited selection from my personal statement used in my applications to mechanical engineering master’s programs.

In the village I lived near the power lines did not stray far from the main road. The rolling hills and trees in the valley muted most of the lights and sounds of electricity. At a certain point, walking down the dirt path to the foot bridge over the river and up into the hills towards my house outside of the village, the shadows that could be seen were only those cast by the light from the moon. The fingers of the power plant didn’t reach any further into the mountains in this direction. But looking around the walls of the bowl created by the surrounding mountains, a sharp glimmer would pop out of the darkness. Sparkles of electricity shone out from the hills. Batteries charged by solar panels were providing some families – some of my students – light to enjoy dinner with and light to study by. Light from the sun still burned brightly for them long after the sun’s last rays had slipped behind the mountains for the evening.

building earth - waterfall in TanzaniaFor two years, those hills in Tanzania provided me with a shelter, a family away from home, an education, an opportunity to share my education, and an inspiration. Watching the effects of “progress” tear down trees, wash away soil nutrients, and pollute our river and source of drinking water for much of the year cemented my desire to work with our natural resources, not against them.

building earth - palm tree in Tanzania

In the middle of my second year in the Peace Corps, my school took our students on a field trip to a local hydro-electric plant that harnessed a natural waterfall. As the engineers explained to my students how the plant changed the energy from the moving water into the electricity that ran into the outlets at the small shops where they charged our cell phones and watched the football matches huddled around small grainy televisions, I stood absorbing the information. And I knew. I knew I was not ever going to be fully satisfied until I had taken everything apart and put it back together again, and ensured that it ran better than before. I knew that this was a way I could put together my love of science and my passion for living a sustainable life. I knew that I was going to finish my service in Tanzania and come home to study renewable energy and mechanical engineering.

Now I find myself, 5 years out of the Peace Corps, graduate degree in hand, looking ahead to the next steps, trying to figure out exactly what this means.

Life continues to be a grand adventure, and my hope is that I can live it in such a way that builds rather than destructs.