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RISMEDIA, Jan. 23, 2008-(MCT)-Local environmentalists in Pittsburgh are linking last week’s warm weather with all the buzz of late about reducing energy use.

More people are wondering about unusual climate patterns in recent years, they say, and are taking steps to shrink their “carbon footprints.” That’s the amount of greenhouse gases they produce by activities ranging from watching wide-screen TVs to driving to and from work.

They’re adjusting their lifestyles and buying habits with products like compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars that have become easier than ever to find and use.

And they’re reaping benefits through lower electric bills and less money spent at the gas station.

“People have finally figured this is not only a good thing for the environment, but they can save money doing it,” said Randy Francisco, associate regional representative with the Sierra Club.

Whether modern conservation efforts have much of an impact on global warming is up for debate.

Patrick Michaels, senior fellow, environmental studies with The Cato Institute in Washington, said all the efforts in nations around the world don’t come close to terms in the Kyoto Protocol that would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the United States 7% below 1990 levels, for instance.

Still, “Even if every nation in the world did what they said they were going to do” under the protocol, the effect on global warming over a half century would be negligible, just 0.07 of a degree Celsius.

Saving money is one thing, Michaels said, but when it comes to global warming, “We are talking a lot of expense here for no gain.”

Here’s a look at some steps that local homeowners and businesses, whether motivated by environmental or budget concerns, have taken:

Changes at home: From lamps to lawn care

Louis Schwartz and his son Ben, 14, have been replacing incandescent bulbs as they burn out at home with compact fluorescent ones. With around 70 lighting fixtures in the family’s 1920s-era home in Squirrel Hill, the project has paid off.

Schwartz, an attorney who advocates clean energy as he helps companies with ventures in China, said he saves about $70 a month on his electric bill by using the more-efficient bulbs and through conservation.

“Despite the rapid rise in power costs,” he said, “our total bill for 2007 was slightly less than in 2006.”

The savings more than cover the cost of the bulbs. A compact fluorescent 60-watt bulb costs about $3, versus 63 cents for a typical bulb, but it lasts 10 times longer, said Schwartz, who’s helping Ben plan a compact fluorescent bulb sale as a fund-raiser for the Community Day School in Squirrel Hill.

More than 80% of the region’s power comes from coal-fired plants, said Ann Gerace, executive director of South Side-based Conservation Consultants Inc.

The Schwartzes cut their power use by more than 8,000 kilowatt hours a year, and Gerace said if every household used just four compact fluorescent bulbs, “we could close 30 dirty power plants.” Michaels, of the Cato Institute, said that may be, but it won’t equate to much in overall emissions reductions.

Cynthia Walter, an ecology professor at St. Vincent College, converted sections of her lawn in Hempfield, Westmoreland County, from grass to natural plants and figures she saves $100 a year on gas and 50 hours in mowing time.

Lawn mowers produce more smog-forming emissions than cars, she said, and “Walking behind your mower for an hour is like hanging your head behind your tailpipe for 100 miles.”

Walter made energy-saving moves at home, and replaced a sedan with a Toyota Prius hybrid to save $2,000 a year.

In industry: Small steps mean big savings

Told that his company had just won a federal Energy Saver Award, Marwas Steel Co. President Jeff Pfeifer at first couldn’t figure out why.

The Scottdale, Westmoreland County-based maker of steel rods, bars, wires and grates had asked West Virginia University faculty and students in 2004 to look at its cold-drawn operations and find some cost savings.

Marwas followed the recommendations, sealing small leaks in the compressed air systems, fine-tuning machinery for optimum performance, using synthetic lubricants that can stand higher heat than petroleum-based products and adding insulation in the buildings.

They were little steps that didn’t seem to Pfeifer to warrant a national award. The Department of Energy disagreed, naming the company’s Fayette Steel Division an “Energy Champion Plant” for cutting energy use by more than 15%. Pfeifer received the award in October.

Marwas, with about 100 employees, fashions carbon and stainless steel into a variety of shapes for American manufacturers that end up as pieces in clam diggers’ rakes, as decorative garden flag holders or as supports in a new office building.

Its Laurel Steel Division nearby makes grates used to cover sewers and build highways and industrial plants. Energy efficiencies went into both plants and continue to pay off, with the company reducing its utility costs by 3% last year from 2006.

Pfeifer said he’s picked up many more energy-saving ideas from a group of manufacturers that meets quarterly through Penn State University’s Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Industry Roundtable for Energy Efficiency & Pollution Prevention events typically draw about 20 companies, said Roger Price, with Penn State’s outreach. Members share ideas, visit each others’ plants and bring in speakers.

At the office: Cork floors and carbon credits

Potential customers pose the question several times a week to pair Networks Inc., a Web hosting company: How is the company aiding the environment?

The South Side-based company declared itself carbon-neutral in August. That means it not only collects paper and other recyclables, and uses natural building and cleaning products — it spent more than $10,000 last year on carbon “offsets.”

TerraPass Inc. sells the company the offsets, or credits linked to its investments in wind farms, landfill gas operations and other alternative energy projects.

The offsets are meant to balance the electricity pair Networks uses to run its computer servers and other equipment, as well as emissions from each of its 60 employees’ cars.

Tim Gaichas, executive vice president of business development, said the company routinely attracts customers through references from environmental Web sites such as TreeHugger.com.

“We can’t forget we’re a global company” that hosts nearly 200,000 Web sites for 100,000 customers, he said.

Gaichas’s office has cork flooring and insulation under the ceiling tiles that was made from old blue jeans. All of the computer monitors use light-emitting diode technology, and plants in many offices convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.

The Federal Trade Commission opened a series of hearings recently on green marketing, asking at the outset where the $54 million that companies and consumers spent on carbon offsets in 2007 really went. But spokesman Scott Hallam said pair Networks chose TerraPass because it provides detailed audits.

Copyright © 2008, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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