Walking lightly on the Earth: Adventures in sustainable living

Picture an area of land the size of twenty-five football fields.

According to last week's Research Unplugged host, Dave Lettero, that is the average American's ecological footprint, a term meaning the amount of land, in acres that it takes to sustain a single individual's lifestyle.

Lettero, a Penn State graduate student in adult education, and director of the Penn State Center for Sustainability has shrunk his footprint from the average citizen's 24.5 acres to approximately 5.5 acres. However, a day in the life of this graduate student at his renewable energy homestead (REH) is much different than that of the typical college student.

Lettero wakes up in his circular yurt, which is 13.5 feet in diameter and features low wattage lighting, radiant floor heating, and a living roof made of sedum that provides insulation and helps filter the rain water he drinks. He walks about 30 yards from his yurt to the kitchen—a converted greenhouse with solar panels—where he brews coffee from home-ground beans and adorns his eggs with fresh salsa made from plants grown in his biointensive garden. Then he walks or bikes to class from the cusp of Penn State's campus near Beaver Stadium, where his unique home is located.

Most of the homestead's activity is powered by energy projects on site, many of which were created by Penn State students. Lettero told the environmentally savvy Research Unplugged crowd about Powerlion, a portable grid of solar panels, and the Whisperer 500 Wind Generator, a 30 foot wind energy tower that he installed last year on Earth Day. Together, these two structures generate about 400 kilowatts per hour of energy each month. This energy is used to power his daily necessities: his cell phone which he uses only sparingly, a computer that he uses to learn more about sustainability on the internet, and a 150 watt refrigerator which chills his food on 1% of the energy a typical refrigerator requires.

The Center for Sustainability also has a gray water treatment facility, where water used for dishes, bathing and laundry is treated to be reused in the landscape; a solar pumphouse that replicates nature's water filtration system; and a greenhouse where Lettero grows his food throughout the year. "I raise the plants to maturity in July and continue to grow them inside in winter," Lettero said. "I grow plants during all four seasons."

"The center is a laboratory; it's a showcase; and it's also my home," Lettero explained. "It's one of a kind." Indeed, while many universities have similar sustainable centers, Lettero is the only student who lives in one year round.

The homestead itself is an innovative energy project. According to Lettero, he and an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students were accepted to compete in the 2007 Solar Decathalon, an intercollegiate competition between next generation solar-powered homesteads like his own. He told the group about similar sustainability efforts like the Rocky Mountain Institute, a large non profit organization in Colorado that focuses on energy efficiency, resources, and technology.

In spite of such colossal examples, however, Lettero reminded those present that even the little things can make a big impact on reducing your personal ecological footprint, like biking instead of driving and turning out the lights every time you leave a room. "Take a week out of your life to tally your resources," he challenged the audience. "Change comes from intelligent individuals like us rethinking the future."

Lettero and Penn State are doing their part to spur this environmental revolution. He gave the participants many suggestions to help. Call companies like BP and request old test panels to create your own solar systems. Carry a coffee mug every day, rather than wasting disposable cups. Or break down your daily energy consumption into categories and be aware of your impact. In this way, Lettero said, one can open the "Pandora's Box" of ecological footprints and allow the knowledge to influence daily decisions.

"It starts with education," he said, "I want to teach people how to save money while doing something good for the community, the environment, and themselves."

Dave Lettero is a graduate student in education and director of operations at Penn State's Center for Sustainability. He can be reached at dal182@psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 12, 2006