The Good News: Osage, Iowa, Counts Kilowatts

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The houses and businesses in Osage, a town of some 3,600 people in northern Iowa, seem just like buildings anywhere else in small-town America. Only a close look reveals the difference. Examine, for example, the new insulated roof on the local hospital that shaves utility bills 20%. Or venture into the basement of Steele's Super Valu grocery to see the wall that owner Everett Steele built around his cooling compressors to capture heat, which is then pumped into the store. Osage's model conservation program saved the town an estimated $1.2 million in energy costs in 1988 and made a modest but worthwhile contribution toward slowing down global warming.

The folks in Osage save energy the old-fashioned way: they plug leaky windows, insulate walls and ceilings, replace inefficient furnaces and wrap hot-water heaters in blanket insulation. Since 1974, the community has cut its natural-gas consumption some 45% and reduced its annual growth in electricity demand by more than half, to less than 3% a year.

Much of the town's energy saving can be traced to the zeal of Weston Birdsall, general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities. Looking back to 1972, when he took over the utility company, Birdsall recalls, "That's about the time OPEC reared its ugly head. We had to do something." Birdsall preached conservation door to door, offering to give every building a free thermogram, a test that pinpoints places where the most heat is escaping. More than half the town's property owners accepted the offer.

Birdsall's conservation campaign still flourishes long after similar efforts elsewhere have flagged. The utility recently decided to give customers $15 fluorescent light bulbs, which use far less energy than incandescent models. While Birdsall's strategies are based on simple, widely known techniques, few cities or towns apply the methods as diligently as Osage does. "Why aren't more people doing this?" Birdsall asks. Maybe more of them will if they come to realize that conserving energy not only saves money but also helps save the environment.