Conserving While Cruising -April 17, 2003
Alternative energy sources: a view from the masthead of the solar panels mounted on our dodger and bimini and the wind-powered generator on our port quarter
We crossed the Gulf Stream at night a little over a week ago, arriving at Fort Pierce Inlet, Florida, at dawn. It would have been pretty difficult for us to miss our North American landfall, even if our compass and GPS had given out. From the time Settlement Point on Grand Bahama Island disappeared behind us, we had the loom of electrified Florida before us on the western horizon. North America is literally burning with energy - whether that energy is lighting the skies, heating (and cooling) buildings, or powering motor vehicles.
After being away from civilization on our boat for a stretch of time, it's always a shock to return to the developed world and discover how much energy everyone consumes. When we visit friends, we get odd looks because we're constantly turning the lights off whenever we vacate a room. We can't help it. It's become ingrained after nine years of living aboard. Ironically, while we involuntarily conserve our friends' energy, the debate over global warming is raging throughout the world. Everything from droughts to flooding has been blamed on a long term increase in the planet's temperature. Most (but not all) of the pundits link the grim situation to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and put most of the blame on fossil fuel emissions. The only thing they can't agree on is a solution.
It seems that everyone believes that someone else should be doing something about global warming. Most ordinary citizens feel there is little they personally can do to address such a huge and complex problem, and are reluctant to foot the bill for something they see as the responsibility of others. Our liveaboard experiences have led us to question this view. When we were back visiting family and friends in Toronto last summer, we decided to do a little research in order to compare our energy consumption patterns with those found in a typical large North American city.
We spend most of the time on our boat at anchor. We rarely go dockside. Virtually all of the electricity we consume comes from a big battery bank. Our lights, radios, laptop computers and, most significantly, our combination refrigerator/freezer, run off 12 volt DC power. We plug any AC appliances or power tools we have into a modest inverter. Our typical power consumption is around 100 amp-hours per day. We charge our batteries mostly from a wind-powered generator and a solar panel array. On very rare occasions, when it's been windless and overcast for a few days, we have to fire up our engine - which is fitted with a high output alternator and "smart" regulator - to keep the batteries topped up.
By comparison, the average residential household in Toronto consumes about 1000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month. Converting the units, our monthly consumption is a mere 36 kilowatt-hours - what the typical Toronto household would use in a day! Moreover, most of the electricity we consume doesn't involve burning any fossil fuels, damming any rivers, or creating any nuclear waste.
While we don't create much in the way of greenhouse gases when we generate electricity on board, we do burn fossil fuels to get around. Despite the fact that we call ourselves sailors, our auxiliary engine gets plenty of use. There's not that much wind in the Caribbean during the summer months and we've motored many miles up and down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway getting to and from the tropics. Over the past nine years, we've run our engine an average of 400 hours per year. That translates into a little under 300 gallons of diesel at our usual fuel consumption rate. That may sound like a lot until you compare it to how much fuel North Americans pump into their cars.
The typical Canadian car is driven 12,400 miles a year, guzzling an average of 570 gallons of gasoline - about twice the amount of fuel we burn. And that's just a single car. Over one third of Canadian households own two or more vehicles. Of course, we have a second vehicle, too - our inflatable dinghy. It's little four horsepower outboard engine is a real gas miser. We might go through a six gallon container of gas in a month or two. We suspect that's no more (and quite possibly less) than what people back home burn in a variety of other small motors, including snow blowers, snowmobiles, lawn mowers, jet skis and runabouts. For land travel when we're in port, we walk, bicycle (we have a pair of folding mountain bikes), or take public transportation.
It's tempting to claim that we're more environmentally conscientious than our land based counterparts. The truth of the matter is that our conservation ethic is rooted as much in economics as it is in any altruistic desire to save the planet. Simply put, we use less electricity and less fossil fuel because these items cost us a lot more, in money and convenience, than they do back home.
When the sun is shining on our solar panels and a fresh breeze is turning the blades of our wind-powered generator, it might seem like we're getting electricity for free. This claim conveniently overlooks the fact that we've invested a total of $6,000 in equipment, including the batteries, generator, panels, alternator, regulator and monitoring system. If we had financed these items at the going rate over a ten year period (arguably, the expected life span of most of the equipment), we'd be paying about $70 a month to produce our miserable 36 kilowatt-hours of electrical power. Toronto Hydro would charge us about a buck for the same amount of electricity.
In the case of fuel, convenience and availability probably encourage on board conservation more than price per se. In a lot of places in the islands, filling up the tank means multiple trips by dinghy to a dock within walking distance of a service station. In the middle of an ocean passage, the options are even more limited. If the wind dies and we're low on diesel, we have no choice but to turn the engine off and be grateful we're not in a hurry.
We're pretty sure that people back home would use less fuel if they had to schlep a six gallon plastic container a couple of blocks to have it filled. And they'd probably consume less electricity if they were paying for each kilowatt-hour in dollars rather than pennies. Now don't get us wrong, we're not suggesting everyone should run away and live on a sailboat. Someone has to keep the economy going. But there are a lot of little things you can do to help save the planet, like leaving the SUV in the garage and making better use of your feet, bicycle or local transit. It's great training for when you go cruising.