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What Does Conservation Mean? Is it the Same as Efficiency? And What Are Renewables?

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The energy efficiency community has something in common with many other industries, including medical, insurance, sports—lots of jargon that can cause confusion. Conservation and efficiency are often used interchangeably, but they are different. And then there’s renewable energy, or “renewables” for short. I like to be intentional about these terms and bring clarity around them for others so they can apply real-world solutions to combat the existential challenge of climate change.



Definition: “Conservation is any behavior that results in the use of less energy.”1

What can conservation look like in your daily life? Here are some tips:

  • LEDs: Let’s start with an easy one. When your lightbulbs die, switch over to LED bulbs as these save 25-35% of the energy used by the old incandescent bulbs. You can now buy “warm” light bulbs that don’t emit the harsh light the early LED bulbs emitted.
  • Air filters: Clean or replace air filters. Dirty filters make appliances and heating systems work harder. Remember to clean out your clothes dryer lint filter between every load.
  • Clothes washers and dryers: Fill ‘er up! Wash in cold and air dry when possible. Laundering uses a lot of energy, so try some easy ways to use less energy like washing in cold water (really no difference in cleaning results than warm or hot water) and washing full loads instead of partial ones. Be careful not to overload your machine, and air dry when possible. Line-dried sheets smell great!
  • Cooking: When in doubt, use the microwave. Firing up your regular range or oven uses a lot of energy, so if you can warm it up or cook it in the microwave, go for it! When you do use your range, pick the burner that is the right size for your pan or pot. Using a larger burner wastes energy. Also, cook the largest amount you may need. When you use your range or oven to cook up some meat or a bean casserole, think about cooking a larger portion that can be split into meals for the rest of the week. Firing up your oven once to cook for 30 minutes, instead of three times in the week, saves a lot of energy. Then warm up the leftovers in the microwave. Saves on human effort, too!
  • Outlets: Unplug! Have a rechargeable toothbrush? These work great and are recommended by dentists for a healthy smile, but there’s no need to leave it on a plugged-in charger 24/7. When your toothbrush needs some juice, plug in the charger and charge your brush. Unplug it when it’s done. Take a good look around your house and turn off or, better yet, unplug appliances, chargers, devices, and such that aren’t in use. Put your computer equipment on a power strip that you can just turn off at the end of the day so it’s not drawing “phantom load” all night and when it’s not in use. Also, be sure to address any electrical issues in your home as these can lead to more electricity surges, brownouts, or flickering that contributes to higher energy bills.
  • Water heaters: This is a big one. No matter how you heat your water—with electricity, natural gas, propane, heating oil, or wood—think lower temperatures. Yes, you’ll want high enough temperatures for comfortable showers and clean dishes but setting your water heater around 115 degrees will warm the water enough for those activities and cost less. In addition, low-flow faucets and showerheads will help you conserve water daily. And use your dishwasher, as it takes less water to wash a large number of dishes, especially if you fill it up!
  • Windows and doors: One more easy one. Close and latch windows and doors as the cold weather comes in. It’s easy to just close the window when it’s a little chilly. When the colder months arrive, you may wonder why you feel a draft and then discover you never latched your windows tightly. Take a walk around your house and check every window and door to make sure they’re tightly secured. Air conditioners should be removed from windows since they are basically wide open to the cold air.


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Definition: “Energy efficiency is using technology that requires less energy to perform the same function.”2

Efficiency is similar to conservation but not the same. It allows you to conserve energy by using more efficient technology. What could this look like for you? Here are some efficiency tips:

  • Timers and programmable thermostats: These are fairly low-cost devices to help you improve your home’s efficiency. Install them on your heating and cooling systems, space heaters, lights, and other devices so you only use the energy you need to use.
  • Weatherization: Tightening up your home will save energy. It’s best to start with an energy audit performed by a certified contractor, as this will give you the information you need to plan this work. Some of the work is pretty easy, like installing window and door weather stripping. Some projects require more investment, like installing spray foam insulation. Sealing air leaks in a comprehensive way can help you save up to 30% on energy bills, but it’s important to enlist the help of a professional contractor in order to also address health and safety issues as well as ventilation considerations.
  • Heating and cooling: Try new heating and cooling technologies. Air source heat pumps use electricity in an efficient way and may be a great option for heating and cooling, especially in the main living areas of your home. This may be worth the investment and offset some other more expensive fuel sources. Heat pump water heaters are also an efficient choice to replace an old water heater that uses more electricity. Many of these options also come with rebates and/or tax credits making them more affordable.
  • Appliances: When your appliances have reached the end of their useful lives, consider replacements that have energy efficiency ratings, such as ENERGY STAR. These will probably use less electricity than your old ones so will cost less to run. You may also be able to get extra state or utility rebates to help offset the possible higher cost.



Definition: “Renewable energy is energy from sources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited; renewable resources are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.”3

As you can see, renewables are related to conservation also but, more specifically, allow you to reduce your impact because you can’t deplete them. Before you get started with renewables, it’s best to address conservation and efficiency issues (see above). But sometimes the “deal” is perfect or the time is right to invest in renewable energy. If you first practice conservation measures and improve efficiencies (such as an upgraded heating system and weatherization), you will be able to determine what your new needs are for energy so you can “right-size” the solution. Here are some popular renewables to consider:

  • Solar, wind, geothermal: These are all ways to generate electricity by the power of sun, wind, or ground source heat. These are considered renewable because they regenerate naturally. Your home may be better suited more for one than it is for others, and you may have many options to consider. Be sure to do your homework and understand how much the investment will return to you over time.
  • Wood heat: While there is some controversy about the “renewable-ness” of wood for heating, it is considered renewable for the purposes of this discussion. Advanced wood heating solutions are growing in popularity because they are efficient, clean, and sourced locally to New England.


We all benefit from practicing and investing in conservation, efficiency, and renewables. Even the smallest actions add up and make a difference in turning the tide on carbon emissions. Sharing our experience with friends and neighbors will compound the benefits for everyone. Spread the word!


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About Laurie Fielder

Laurie directs VSECU’s VGreen energy savings loan program. Previously, she worked for the weatherization program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council (now Capstone), and for a successful residential solar installer. She enjoys helping Vermonters learn about efficiency and renewable financing options that maximize the savings of these smart investments. She lives in Woodbury with her family and enjoys the outdoors, walking the dog, and tackling home improvement projects.
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