Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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Will "Smart" Household Electricity Meters Give You Cancer?

| Mon Jan. 17, 2011 6:30 AM EST

You'd think Marin County, California, famous for its tree huggers, would be all for "smart" household electricity and gas meters. Experts say that the devices, which allow utilities to calculate your energy rates in real time instead of once a month, are an important step toward greening our Rube-Goldberg-ish energy grid. But earlier this month, the Marin County board of supervisors voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on installation of the devices, primarily because of health concerns about the electromagnetic radiation the devices emit. As Jonathan Hiskes points out in his post on the subject, health worries are only part of the debate: Some worry that smart meters will broadcast consumers' private information to utilities and businesses. Still others believe that smart meters will actually increase users' power bills.

So is there reason to fear the new system, or are Bay Area folks just nuts? I polled a few experts. Herewith, their answers to some of the most pressing smart-meter questions.

Will my smart meter give me a brain tumor?

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Do Space Heaters Save Money and Energy?

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Brrr! It's been unusually cold in the Bay Area: I had to scrape actual ice off my car last week. (Isn't that why I left the East Coast in the first place?) We've been cranking the space heaters all night at my house, lest we turn into icicles in our sleep. Since our central heat isn't very efficient (it is itself kind of a giant space heater), I've assumed that the room-by-room approach is best. But our power bill soared last month, so I decided to do a little more research.

The short answer is that it depends on how much of your house you're heating. In general, if you only need one or two rooms to be warm, space heaters will use less energy than central heat. (Unless your central heating happens to be wildly efficient: Geothermal users, I'm looking at you). "But in terms of energy per heat output, small space heaters will rarely ever be as efficient as a central heating system," says Tom Simchak, a senior policy-research associate at the Alliance to Save Energy. "There would be few situations where putting space heaters in every room and turning them all on would be more efficient than a properly-operating and relatively modern central system."

10 Green New Year's Resolutions

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 6:30 AM EST

I asked MoJo staffers, our Facebook friends, and Econundrums readers to submit their green new year's resolutions. Herewith, in no particular order, ten of my favorites:

1. Actually composting the veggies that melt into mush in the bottom of the veggie drawer instead of holding the bag by one corner and putting it in the trash.  There is something about the grossness factor that just makes it hard to scrape them out of the bag...I compost everything else I should! -Emma L.

2. Finally getting my motorcycle license to save gas this summer! -Lucy W.

3. I just discovered that changing the reflectors on my stovetop cuts boiling time in half. Also, i'm pretty proud of the fact that i always flush my dog's poop. -Giovanna P.

4. I'm gonna use the same water bottle for the rest of my life, I've decided. -Julie A.

5. Get even more creative with our composting. We now have 15,000 earthworms, and for 2011 we are getting our own chickens! -Pogo S.

6. When I'm driving somewhere, I'll leave early so I don't speed, saving gas. -Peter M.

7. I'm going to try not to use more than 10 plastic/brown paper grocery bags in the year, which means always carrying a reusable bag. -Khary B.

8. Save money by making some eco-friendly laundry detergent: 1 cup shaved castille soap, 1/2 cup borax, 1/2 cup washing soda. Use 1 teaspoon, and your clothes smell fresh right out of the laundry. It takes 10 minutes to make! -Leslie D.

9. No more poisonous household cleaners. The best cleaning solution I have ever used is a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice, and salt. That works on almost everything. For tough jobs like bathrooms, just sprinkle a little baking soda, then the spray, watch it fizzle, and voila! -Neeraj U.

10. I just follow my mother's Depression-era dictum: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without! -Meg B.

And as for me? My backyard is priority number one. It's been looking downright feral since the end of the summer. Then there's my bike, which isn't doing anyone any good sitting on the back porch. After yardwork and bike fixing, who knows? Chickens?

What are you going to do for the planet in 2011? Share your resolutions in the comments.

Can You Unplug Your Fridge at Night To Save Money and Energy?

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 6:30 AM EST

This interesting question from Econundrums reader Myk recently caught my attention:

I have often wondered if it would be possible to unplug my fridge at night when I know for certain that no one will need to open it for eight hours. Would the unit keep in the cold if the doors remained closed?

The short answer is no, says LeeAnne Jackson, health science policy advisor at FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Refrigerators should be maintained at a constant temperature setting at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below," writes Jackson in an email. "Numerous foods in your refrigerator might have bacteria on them, and the cold temperature inhibits the bacteria from multiplying (or at least slows it down). If the food warms up, the bacteria will reach harmful levels faster." For this reason, the USDA recommends that food left in an unplugged, unopened fridge for more than four hours be tossed. (Frozen items left in a full freezer stay good for two days; in a half full freezer it's more like 24 hours.)

And even if you're willing to risk spoiling your food (or you only keep in your fridge food that can withstand higher temperatures), the energy savings aren't significant, since "if the refrigerator is unplugged more energy will be used to cool the refrigerator back down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit than if the refrigerator simply maintains the temperature at 40 degrees," says Jackson.

Bruce Nordman, an energy efficiency researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, basically agrees with Jackson. "You do use energy to go back to the original temperature, but should save some with the higher temperature," he says. "However, the savings are strictly proportional to the amount of time at the higher average temperature, so you only save a lot if the temperature goes way up." Which, of course, you wouldn't want it to, given the bacteria problem.

Want to save energy in your fridge? Here are six top tips for maximizing the efficiency of your refrigerator, from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.

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