For awhile, Slate was satisfied just to be one of the more consistently engaging/occasionally enraging sites on the Internet — well, satisfied to be that and to run dazzling features from one of the finest young writers of his generation. But in recent years, they’ve done a lot of innovating. Yes, there’s still a lot of “what you think is bad is actually good” feature-ing, but there are also a ton of new spin-off blogs and aggregations and videos and such. Apps, presumably. (The young people are always talking about the apps). One such new addition to Slate is The Hive, in which Slate’s readership’s collective intelligence is brought to bear on a particular problem. This is made all the more interesting, and gbNYC-relevant, by the fact that the first subject The Hive is tackling is the greening of Slate writer Daniel Gross’ Connecticut home. “Your proposals could range from technological fixes (programmable thermostats, perhaps) to policy changes (new tax incentives for purchasing energy efficient appliances) to psychological insights about behavior (ways to use peer pressure to reduce energy use) to anything else—the more unconventional and brilliant, the better,” Slate editor David Plotz writes in introducing The Hive. So, how are they doing?
That little Slate-y edge — “the more unconventional…the better” — is some cause for anxiety, since this would hopefully be one place where the counterintuivity-first ethos of Slate might be nudged aside. Thankfully, though, no one has risen to that particular bit of bait and descended into Freakonomic-style idiot-whimsy. (A comprehensive list of Hive proposals is here) In fact, the suggestions that Gross has garnered are all the sort of things that will look very familiar to regular gbNYC readers — get an energy audit, re-tool with Energy Star appliances as needed, get more insulation (yes!). It’s probably for the best that the task of an ad-hoc green home retrofit just doesn’t lend itself to contrarianism very much: this is a fairly concrete affair, and if the responses to it are by their nature a little dry and wonky (at least to those who don’t dig insulation or efficient windows as much as your author), then… well, that’s fine, because they’re intelligent and useful.
As you might expect, much of the interest and conflict in the piece comes from the confrontation between what David Owen calls LEED Brain — that is, the urge to solve every efficiency problem in the most ostentatiously futuristic and expensive newfangled fashion — and the fact that such comparatively dull efficiency measures as improved insulation are far more effective than, say, solar showers or suburban-scale geothermal. There’s something gratifying about Slate taking a break from tweaking expectations to get as service-y as Gross does here, in his recent celebration of insulation. “Insulation is more expensive and more intrusive than things like smart meters, programmable thermostats, or compact fluorescents,” Gross writes. “Improving your insulation could involve cutting holes in walls and ceilings, ripping some stuff out, and blowing or rolling other stuff in. The good news is that, if you live in Connecticut, your fellow electricity ratepayers will pay for a lot of it. Connecticut’s Energy Efficiency Fund is running a special in which it’ll rebate up to 50 percent of the cost of new insulation, and there’s a 30 percent federal tax credit. Unless I’m misunderstanding the way it works, you spend $2,000 on new insulation and could get a rebate of up to $1,000 and a tax credit of $667 (depending on your tax bracket), meaning the net cost to you at the end of the year is $334.”
Again, probably old hat to those of you who read my thrice-weekly paeans to insulation. But Slate and The Hive deserve credit for both taking on an interesting and worthy project, and for being willing to follow it to its dorky conclusion. If you’ve got any thoughts on increasing energy efficiency in smaller homes — or on this particular journalistic enterprise — by all means drop them into the comments.