A Conversation with Dennis Creech

By Randy Flinders

Few have been more influential in bringing consciousness to energy use than Dennis Creech and the organization he cofounded, Southface Energy Institute. After 38 years, Creech is stepping down as Executive Director. Despite his decades-
long influence on builders, academia, policy makers, and people wanting to make a difference, Creech is humble, but very proud of the community he helped create.

Conscious Life Journal: Take us back to 1978.

Dennis Creech: Southface started as an all-volunteer effort to really focus the public’s attention on energy as an environmental challenge. We’d had Earth Day ten years before, but the environmental community did not really look at energy as an environmental challenge. When you looked at global warming, acid rain, ground level ozone, and smog, all of these things were serious challenges that were directly related to how we produce and use energy. We use the term sustainability now, but we didn’t have that term back then. It means the same thing: How do we respect the planet and people, together.

CLJ: Most of us still enjoy our powered-up lives without thinking like that.

DC: Energy fuels our modern life; really every aspect of our life is enriched by energy. The worst thing in the world is for us to be in the dark, cold, or hungry. Unfortunately, we often choose to waste a lot of energy. Then we choose environmentally damaging ways of producing that energy. It’s been said that with the exception of war, the production of energy is the most damaging activity to this planet.

The good news is we know to change all that. We know how to save energy so we don’t waste it. It’s called energy efficiency. Energy efficient appliances, lighting, buildings, and autos deliver the same or better service while using less energy and saving money. We also know how to produce clean energy. So we need to stop doing the stupid stuff—needlessly constructing new buildings that waste energy—and start doing the smart things, such as looking at solar means to meet the energy needs of buildings. The good news is the cost of harnessing solar energy has reduced greatly.

Particularly important here in the South is water. The production of electricity here uses the largest amount of fresh water.

CLJ: Really? I don’t think people realize that.

DC: Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. The same is true for nuclear power. We’re in a region that has severe droughts. We’re making all sorts of public investments to try and overcome our inconsistent water supply, and we don’t really tie energy planning and water as closely as we should. So when we make an investment in an energy resource that’s very water-thirsty and wasteful, that’s crazy!

This sounds like a joke: “How many gallons of water do you save with an energy efficient lightbulb?” If you trace the electrical wires from that lightbulb back to the power plant, it’s using about a half-gallon to a gallon of water for each kilowatt hour that it generates.

One of the challenges we have is that the price we pay for energy is not really the true cost. We subsidize all forms of energy: solar, wind, coal, natural gas, and nuclear.

We put the most subsidies on the ones that cause the most environmental damage and
 we provide the least subsidies for the most environmentally friendly sources that generate the most jobs per dollar invested.

By the way, Georgia imports all of its traditional energy sources—coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel. That means we’re exporting money from our state. The only energy sources that are home grown in Georgia are energy efficiency and solar.

So it’s difficult for energy efficient sources to compete in the marketplace because people don’t pay for the waste. Society pays for the waste. I can build a big house, install crummy windows, and I can afford to waste energy because it’s cheap. So aligning these market signals is very important to encourage people to do the right thing.

CLJ: How much energy and money can we really save?

DC: Our building is a great example, the Southface Eco Office. We’ve been in it almost eight years now. It uses eighty percent less water and less than half the energy of a typical office building. And we got that high performance with off-the-shelf technology that was available at a competitive price eight years ago. The pieces of the puzzle are there to get net positive energy and net positive water buildings—it’s just putting the pieces together.

There are some behavioral no cost/low cost measures that anyone can do. When you go to work, set the thermostat back. We hear that all the time, but most people don’t do it.

If you’re just looking for what saves per dollar invested for most homeowners, that’s going 
to be sealing the ducts in your house. Most people don’t have a clue what that means. Not cleaning the ducts, but sealing the ducts. Ducts have many hidden leaks, so hire a contractor to seal them up so you’re not losing the air you’re paying to heat or cool.

Sealing ducts also improves the air quality in your house. Leaking ducts suck in air from crawlspaces and attics. This air is often loaded with mold and toxins, like termite treatment.

CLJ: After thirty-eight years leading the Southface community, are you still optimistic?

DC: Sometimes I think that those who are passionate about the environment tend to focus on the challenges we have, and not the progress we’ve made. I would argue that the rate of change is increasing, but I don’t think our journey is over.

One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I think that’s a very important lesson for us to keep in mind: Small groups of people can really bring about dramatic change.

Randy Flinders is president of Renewable Energy Southeast, LLC. Using a system new to the Southeast, the company provides solar hot water, pool, and space heating. Their products, proven in the Pacific Northwest, are more efficient and affordable than previously available solar thermal systems. RenewEnergySoutheast.com.