No Coal this Christmas Season – Personal Climate Action you can take now

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Over the last year we’ve done a lot to our house to make it much less energy intensive, bought an electric car, and got  involved in Citizens’ Climate Lobby. The research for all of that created a big pile of links for me, which I’ve tried to summarize here, to really show how many different ways you can make an impact.

This list is customized for New York, because that’s where I live, and where I’ve done all my research. It would be great to see other folks build local guides for their areas as well, and I’d love to link to them.

Where Energy is Used

How do we use energy in the US? Because we measure electricity in kWh, gasoline / fuel oil in gallons, natural gas in cubic feet, sizing them all up and comparing them is hard. And we don’t think about them as a single energy system. At a national level our energy is used by [1]:

  • Buildings – 40%
    • Residential – 20%
    • Commercial – 20%
  • Transportation – 28%
    • Cars, Light Trucks, Motorcycles – 16.2%
    • Other Trucks – 6.4%
    • Planes – 2.2%
  • Industry – 32%
    • Petroleum Refining – 10%
    • Chemical Production – 8.6%
    • Paper Production – 3.5%
    • Metals Production – 3%

The bits of this that always surprise me is that buildings are our key use of energy. Buildings are long term infrastructure. Our house was built in 1960, there are plenty of houses in our area build in 1900. Improving existing buildings is critical to making our infrastructure more efficient. Every improvement we’ve made over the last couple of years will live on beyond us in this home.

The other thing that sticks out is that we use 10% of our energy budget in the US refining petroleum. Much of that to be burned in other parts of the system. Every time we prevent a gallon of gas from burning, we don’t only save it’s emissions, but the emissions that happened when it was refined.

Homes

 

energy-use-chart
Average Home Energy use in NY State

Get a home energy inspection

In NY, the NY State Energy Research and Development Agency has many programs to increase energy efficiency. One of the programs is subsidized home energy audits to give you a targeted plan about what the biggest impacts for saving energy in your home will be.

Air sealing and Attic Insulation

Our home was built in 1960, and insulated to the standard at the time (which was not much). A year ago we went forward on our energy audit recommendations and got our attic air sealed, and 8″ of cellulose insulation put on top. The results were dramatic. Heating dropped about 15%, my home office (which is the far end of the HVAC), no longer needed a space heater, and summer cooling was also dramatically reduced.

Get your energy inspection first, but realize that proper insulation in your home will dramatically, and immediately change the comfort level, and your energy use.

Replace your Oil Furnace with Geothermal

About 50% of homes in NY State heat with Fuel Oil. It is one of the dirtiest way to heat your home.

If you live in the Hudson Valley or Albany regions, Dandelion is a new geothermal company offering package deals to replace your existing oil system with a ground source heat pump. They put a well or two in your front yard, put a sealed tube down it, then use the 50 degree earth and a compressor to heat your home. Heat pumps get about 4 units of heat for every unit of electricity they consume. Ours has been in for about a month, and so far we’re in love. So much quieter, no whiffs of oil smoke, and much more even distribution of heat in the house (it runs the fan slower and longer).

When I did the math, this was the single biggest climate impact we could make. This takes 700 gallons of fuel oil off the table. In comparison, we used about 500 gallons of gasoline in an average year between our cars.

Replace your Oil Furnace with… anything else

Seriously, Fuel Oil is terrible for the environment. While Natural Gas and Propane are still fossil fuels, they emit a lot less both in creating them, and when they burn. If you can’t go the full hog to something like a heat pump, changing from Oil to NG or Propane will reduce your emissions on heating to about 1/2 of what they were before.

Lighting

If you’ve not yet replaced all your lighting in your house with LEDs, do that now. They only use about 20% of the electricity of incandescent bulbs, are more efficient than even fluorescent, and last an incredibly long time (25 year lifespans are common).

If you are a Central Hudson customer you can get 60W replacement bulbs for $1 each. Just do it. While lighting use is overall a pretty low part of your energy budget, it is also very actionable if you haven’t done the conversion to LEDs yet. And, LED lights fit in christmas stockings.

Electricity

The path to decarbonizing the economy is to electrify everything, while simultaneously making the electric grid less carbon intensive.

chart

NY State’s energy production is relatively low carbon, but if we are going to fully decarbonize we do need to reduce natural gas consumed for electricity as much as possible.

Choose a Green ESCO

NY State allows you to choose your energy producer (energy services company, or ESCO). There are a number of companies that provide you with energy from wind farms that they are building regionally. This typically mean a small rise in your energy costs, but that comes with supporting the build out of new renewables.

Two good options in our area are:

Community Solar

NY State has new rules in place that allow for Community Solar in our area. These are small scale (2 Mega Watt or less) facilities that you can sign up and get your power from solar even if you can’t put solar panels on your roof (you have bad site, or are a renter).

Solarize Hudson Valley has sign up information for folks in the area. If you are in the Central Hudson power generation region, Nexamp is building a facility in Wappingers Falls. We’ve signed up, and starting in May of 2018, will be getting our power from solar.

Carbon Offsets

If there is nothing on the list that works for you, but you still want to have an impact on reducing your carbon footprint, consider some kind of carbon offset. Carbon offset projects work to capture carbon, or reduce emissions from something like a landfill. We all share one atmosphere, so any way you reduce emissions helps.

The carbon offset market is a wildly confusing place as an individual. As a NY (or North East) resident, the Carbon Reduction Certificates from the Adirondack Counsil is great. Each certificate is used to buy 1 ton of CO2 off the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative annual carbon auction (a carbon trading system for power companies that 9 states have agreed to, and NJ and VA might be joining soon). The price for a ton of carbon on the RGGI is still pretty low, so left over proceeds go to their micro grants program which support local energy efficiency and emissions reduction.

RGGIStates529px_0

Get Engaged

Right now, you need to do something extra, or out of the ordinary to have an impact on climate change. Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a political action group looking to change that, by pricing carbon in the economy. A real price on carbon would make doing the efficient thing, also be doing the cheaper thing, which would make it the default choice in most situations.

We’ve got a local chapter that meets in Beacon, NY once a month, and so if you want to flex your political muscles, as well as your economic ones, sign up and join us.

It all maters

Every action you make matters. And the exciting fact is that there are so many things you can do now to have an impact (including many things not on this list). So take a minute this holiday season and think about how you can take a little bit of coal out of your own Christmas season.

 

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