The point of preserving our quality of life is so that there's some prospect of influencing others to follow us, and most people being highly motivated by their own comfort and convenience, we will be more influential to the extent we don't sacrifice too much of our own. So this is not an effort at voluntary poverty, but rather an effort to figure out how to live a pretty comfortable middle class life while not using fossil fuels.
My assumption has been that this would be something that might be doable over the course of five years or so - fairly quick compared to the overall laggardly pace of societal decarbonization, but not trying to transition in a way so abrupt as to be massively inconvenient, or make the kids feel like they were living in a loony farm. The initial move away from the SF Bay Area to Ithaca of course accomplished nothing direct in the way of decarbonization - if anything the reverse as our heating needs have gone up, not to mention all the diesel in the shipping trucks. Rather, the point was that by moving to a full-time telecommute situation from a low cost area, we could free up enough resources to actually have some room to maneuver, rather than living pretty much month-to-month, being entirely pinned down by the very high costs of housing, etc.
I also think that fully decarbonizing is easier in a rural setting. It's easier to conserve somewhat in an urban setting (with walkable communities, public transportation, smaller housing units, etc). But rural property gives you the space to do ground-source heat pumps, solar electricity, etc, which lets you get a lot further. (Unless, of course, the whole town is doing it).
Initially, we moved to a rental house in town. So our current fossil fuel usage is dominated by
- natural gas for heating,
- gasoline for driving around (although I'm mainly biking, both my wife Zoe, and her Mom who lives with us, mainly drive to get around),
- fossil fuel generated electricity (the landlords pay the utility bills, and we reimburse them).
So, as of a couple of weeks back, we are now the proud owners of 11 acres, complete with a mid-nineteenth century farmhouse and a medium-sized barn. It's situated in a valley up in the hills about 10 miles from Ithaca, between two state forests, and surrounded by a land trust nature preserve. Directly on the property, we have a one acre pond, a little over an acre of lawns, 8 acres or so of gently sloping pasture, and a little woodland, mostly riparian right next to the creek that abuts the property, and a stream that runs down to it.
I say the creek abuts the property, because legally it does, and it used to do so in fact as well as in law. However, shortly before we got the house, the beavers decided to divert the creek onto the lowest portion of our lawn by damming the culvert under the road. How long the powers that be will tolerate this situation is unclear, since probably the town's engineers would like the culvert nice and clear, and the land trust had intended the creek to run on their property, not ours. But apparently the beavers didn't consult their lawyers or get permits before beginning their midnight construction project.
Our property used to be a dairy farm, but hasn't been for probably fifty years. A lot of New York hill farms failed in the first half of the twentieth century and then got bought up in the depression by the government which turned them into state forests. The hills on either side of our valley became state forests that way, but the farms high up the valley held on a little longer and then became residences and/or horse farms. Lower down the valley, there are still working farms.
The barn is the clearest evidence of the history of the farm: it started out as a single gable-end timber frame barn, then grew (also in the timber frame era) into a cross shape with additional gables lower and at right angles to the original structure. Then it sprouted extra stick-built sheds and dairies on the sides, lost the stone foundation somewhere along the way, gained concrete floors (now very badly cracked from frost heave), had the middle floor converted to a somewhat-insulated-and-heated snowmobile clubhouse, then a workshop, with horse-stalls on the ground floor. Now it awaits our plans and efforts to iterate on 150 years of improvising and adapting the structure. There's something about the sheer low-techness and unfinishedness of a barn that gets your Sawzall trigger finger twitching.
In any case, we will be moving up to the farm in stages between now and the spring. I will be moving my office over New Year's weekend, and so regular residence there will begin after that. For various logistical reasons, the bulk of our stuff won't be coming out from California till May, so we won't be completely moved until then. But since I'm about to start working there full time, it's time to consider the initial energy choices.
The property is somewhat unusual in that there is no provision for liquid or gaseous fuel. Too far from town for natural gas, and no evidence of propane ever being used. There was an oil heater in the barn long ago, but it's completely defunct. There is electricity supply (distributed via NYSEG), and then the ground floor of the farmhouse has a coal stove. The latter is supplemented by electric baseboard heaters in every room of the house. The coal stove is a sort of a personal climate destruction machine - it takes in both electricity and coal, and uses the electricity to power an automated feeder mechanism which takes rice coal from a hopper and burns it, somewhere out of sight in the depths of the machine, before distributing the resulting heat via a blower fan. The previous owners avowed that it would burn for four days unattended from a full hopper of coal (they were very proud of it because it heated the lower floor of the farmhouse so cheaply and conveniently).
We did contemplate running this thing for a while until it became somewhat more budgetarily convenient to replace it, but our consciences have got the better of us and we have decided that an immediate project is to replace it with a modern wood stove - less convenient, no doubt, to stack and load wood, but we need the exercise anyway, and it's ever so much more beautiful to look at a wood fire through the glass of an efficient wood stove with secondary burners. And of course, at least in our area, there's plenty of trees busy fixing the carbon for future firewood. Not a solution that will scale to everyone, for sure. Not a solution that works for urban areas. But one that certainly makes sense here.
So the other major "stationary" energy supply is the electricity from the grid. Perusing my welcome letter from NYSEG, it turns out that New York is one of the deregulated states in which you pay separately for power generation and distribution. There is a long list of potential energy suppliers, and some of them offer renewable power options. For example, Agway energy services repackages an offering from Sterling Planet, which seems to be 50% wind power, and 50% small hydro, all generated within New York state.
Now, it seems to me, on an initial peruse, that this is not cheating. I've always considered buying carbon offsets as cheating - at best it's paying someone else to do your climate transitioning for you, and at worst, it's just sending money into some counterfactual boondoggle in a developing country. However, as far as I can see, if I sign up with a renewable option here, all the money that I pay for electricity generation goes to generators of renewable power. True, there's no tracking where the electrons come from (a question that quantum mechanics tells us cannot be answered even in theory, let alone in practice). But there doesn't seem much doubt about where our money would be going, and it would all be going to wind farms, hydro-generators, etc.
Of course, I will probably pay rather a lot to heat with wood and renewable electricity. But that will motivate me to get to the insulation upgrades that the old house needs, and the ground source heat pump that I hope will eventually heat both houses. But, someone correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like as soon as the coal stove is gone, I could then claim that my stationary household operation is fossil fuel free. In the meantime, our inefficiency is just more money for renewable energy.
(Of course, there will still be gasoline, which will remain on the five year plan. For myself, there is the Volt. My wife, though, is a proud soccer-Mom, and feels strongly that, as such, she needs to be able to seat seven in her vehicle. Her Highlander Hybrid was the best compromise between her priorities and mine as of 2006. Electric versions of similar vehicles are in sight on the horizon - both GM and Tesla are reported to be working on electric or PHEV SUVs, but it's probably a few years out. Then there's my mother-in-law's Windstar, which serves as the family junk-hauler, as well as running her errands. Presumably, that too can be replaced with a PHEV in due course. That will leave us with aviation - fly less by videoconferencing more and/or fly Virgin - and a small residual oil usage for things like mowers and snow throwers, which hopefully will eventually get decent lithium versions too).