As student body president of Las Lomas High School in 1976, I set out to make positive changes in the world around me. Studying for 2 years at UC Santa Barbara, and then 2 years at UC Santa Cruz, gave me a clear view of how the world works and what I could do to foster an environmentally sustainable world. I have been" Muddling Towards Frugality," for 30 years.
I've been designing and building passive and active solar buildings since 1979. When people call me and say, "I want to go solar," they usually are referring to solar panels (active solar). What most people do not realize is that the passive solar and energy conserving practices are generally much more effective and payback much sooner. Examples would be insulating the outside of building foundations, closing the window coverings at night and opening them in the day, increase building insulation to at least R-40 in the walls and R-60 in the ceilings, correctly sizing external shading devices, insulating all the hot water pipes in your home, or tempering fresh air entering a building using underground plenums to naturally supply 65 degree all year round.
These passive techniques generally are inexpensive and payback in 1-5 years. I love photovoltaic and thermal solar panels, and have been installing them for years. Thermal solar pays back in about 1/3 the time a photovoltaic system will payback. Reducing your energy consumption is first, then go to the tech solutions. In my current house, I shut off the gas on my 1958 forced air furnace, and installed a hot water radiator in the return side and hooked it up the the same thermostat and fan controls. Results: 1) Much better air quality since we are now breathing air without burnt dust particulates. 2) 1/3 lower monthly energy bills. 3) More comfortable and even indoor temperatures. Since the system is working at lower temperatures, the fan cycles longer, reducing temperature stratification. It also reduces temperature swings by letting the interior thermal mass of my house remain at a more constant temperature. 4) Short Payback period: my system will payback in less than 1 year.