Thursday, December 27, 2012

Carbon Neutral Household Operations in 2012

In my personal quest for my family to be carbon neutral, 2012 was a significant step forward.  In 2011, we reached the point where our house itself did not require any fossil fuels to operate (by using wood heat and commercial renewable power).  In 2012, we undertook an energy audit and resulting house efficiency work to make a major reduction in the amount of electricity we use (thanks to Snug Planet). I'll quantify this when the heating season is over but we are now pretty much using no electricity for heat, relying entirely on wood for that.  Electricity usage for appliances and hot water should also have been reduced substantially.

Also, having found a carbon offset provider I like (Finger Lakes Climate Fund), I was able to offset all our personal air travel, car usage, and landscaping machinery fuel usage, resulting in overall carbon-neutral household operations in 2012 - for the first time ever.

Does this mean we are environmental saints with nothing left to do?  Absolutely not, nothing could be further from the truth.  My major goal in 2013 is to get a solar installation, which should mean we will generate most or all of our electricity on site.  Beyond that, I'd like to move to electric and/or plugin-hybrid cars to reduce our reliance on offsets.  The house could be made far more efficient still if we did a deep-energy retrofit when we replace the siding, and if we replaced the windows with more efficient (eg non-Victorian) ones.  All these are steps we can take entirely on our own in the next few years.

Looking to less easy fixes over the longer term: we buy many goods and services from suppliers who are not themselves carbon-neutral.  As carbon neutral alternatives become available, I would very much like to select those where practical.  Also, I work for a mainstream company who presently have no concern for their carbon footprint (eg, they won't reimburse carbon offsets for my work-related travel - I asked).  That too is something I'd like to improve on in the long term.

Still, it feels good to have gotten as far as we have.


Unknown said...

Hi Stuart.
Laudabe aims !
We went to wood fired five years ago and I cut, split, stack, cut and chop the 6 cords we use annually together with my neighbour. We use local wood that is cleared to prevent gulleys blocking (so recent regrowth). We cheat and use a tractor flattop to haul to home, a chainsaw for the first cuts (trees into meter lengths), and a hydraulic splitter for I meter diameter to cordwood.

So to my question - how renewable is your wood source ?

Second - We must be careful how we think about renewable sources.

I use electricity from local hydro generation. But if I didn't someone else could use it instead of fossil fuel (we are on the same grid). So am I part of the solution, no I create demand - I am part of the problem. So if you generate solar at home it is still better to export it than waste it !
Do come and join our on google+ community !EnergyEfficiency

Aimee said...

first off, no saint here either - we heat with propane (ugh). But my husband is working on adapting an oil burning furnace to run off waste veggie oil. The cars already run off biodiesel he produces himself from waste veggie oil. And I contribute to lowering our footprint by growing and raising about 50% of our own food, animal and vegetable both.

Wood has serious environmental issues as well, of course. Where's it from? How was it harvested? It produces particulate matter that is hard on human health and also contributes to raising albedos on snowpack... nothing's perfect of course and if you have the right kind of stove and are willing to search out "good" wood, then it's most likely your best option.

Long term, we have two good options for home electricity generation - we live in a fantastic spot for wind, but our county has a moratorium on windmills (boo-hiss). And another project my husband is interested in is creating a residential sized gassifier (sp?)to use our substantial animal compost to create electricity. This option is, for obvious reasons, not too widely applicable in the States, but many villages in Africa and elsewhere use it to power a schoolhouse or clinic. It just might work for us.

Lars-Eric Bjerke said...

It is easier for me to try to be carbon neutral. In my city, Göteborg, basically the entire city is heated by district heating with three heat sources- a waste burning plant, waste heat from two refineries and heat pumps taking heat from the city waste water. The electricity in the country is 50 % hydro and 50 % nuclear although I use 100 % wind. We have trams and quite a few electric hybrid busses. The problem is my diesel car. However the local refinery produces diesel with a 26 % biodiesel content from wood. Hopefully I can replace my car with a plug in diesel hybrid soon.

jemand said...

Do you have suggestions for apartment dwellers?

On the one hand... perhaps if I can get any improvement it wouldn't *just* be my apartment, it might be over all of them... but "carbon neutral" is probably a *completely* unrealistic goal to approach a landlord about... and I am kind of generally tentative about approaching them about it in the first place (and not really sure which step would yield the best benefit for cost, either.)

I know the insulation and the windows leave much to be desired and we rely on electric heat in New England, but never having owned myself I don't *really* know the details needed to approach the owner.

Stuart Staniford said...

On the issues around wood - my take is that wood is *absolutely not* a general solution (there's not nearly enough of it for one and the local pollution issues are horrendous in the city) - but it's regionally appropriate for rural use in some places. Since I live in a very sparsely settled valley ten miles from town, and since trees grow like weeds in the northeast and have been taking over old fields for many decades now, I think it's appropriate here. The guy I buy firewood from is - how sustainable his practices are I don't know - I'll ask him when I see him in the spring.

Stuart Staniford said...

jemand - you raise an excellent question that I've been thinking about a lot (I have hopes of developing some carbon neutral rental housing as investment property down the road).

In your situation with your landlord - it's traditionally been pretty hopeless because with the renter generally paying the utility bills, the landlord has a negative incentive to do anything about the situation - it's a certain cost with a very dubious benefit (getting renters to pay higher rent on the theory that the utility bills will be lower). I wonder though if the advent of on-bill recovery in a few places (including here in New York state) will start to change the calculus since the cost of the work can be financed through the utility bill (which allows them to be passed onto future tenants with no fuss). Also here in New York, there are some programs if tenants are below some fraction of the median income where NYSERDA will pay some of the costs.

The first step would be an energy audit but I'm afraid you're unlikely to sell your landlord on anything unless you've learned enough to be able to explain how it's in his interests. And I agree for an average landlord, talking about carbon neutrality will get you nowhere - you'll have better luck talking about straight financial paybacks. Which state are you in?

Aimee said...

Jemand I am a landlord of an older house that could use some work. Personally, I'd be thrilled if my renter said something along the lines of " let's get the free energy audit, and then if you buy the materials, we'd be willing to do some installing of (door jambs, insulation, etc) in exchange for some consideration if my time off the rent." Obviously this only works if you are handy, but it's worried we'll for me and my tenant before.

jemand said...

I'm in Amherst. The cultural environment is such that there is at least passing support for environmentalism (it's quite easy for me to, for example, get the majority of my food from local, organic CSAs) and energy efficiency might be a selling point to a landlord. On the other hand, the student population which seem to be the majority of renters is in and out usually in only a few years so there aren't as many long-term relationships with tenants. Also, there are always a LOT of people trying to rent, so it's not exactly a renter-driven market.

Part of my problem is I am hesitant to even ask at all-- which is a silly standpoint given the facts and the future if we all just sit on our hands, but it's kind of my personality.

On that note, I am impressed with how you at least approached your employer regarding carbon offsets for work-related travel, I would actually appreciate any insights into the social dynamics of that kind of scenario, since I think that would be somewhat analogous to mine.

Tom Bennion said...

In my city Wellington New Zealand, we get about 70 per cent of our electricity from a combination of wind and hydro, I commute about 24km round trip with an electric bike or bus. I highly recommend electric bikes for city use. They escape lots of regulatory costs. Our mayor uses one for all her appointments. Thanks for sharing your different stories. These local stories are heartening.

Stuart Staniford said...

jemand: it would seem you want

I'm seeing a bunch of stuff under there specifically oriented at landlords, so that maybe a good starting place for a conversation.

In terms of my asking about carbon offset reimbursements - I am an exec at my company so it's not a big deal for me to drop a note to the CFO asking about it (nor a big deal, it seems, for him to reply telling me where to stuff my request :-)

jemand said...

Thanks! I'll see how it goes. As per Aimee's suggestion, I might be able to at least get better door jams or upgrade the windows.

Mike Aucott said...


Congratulations on the exemplary progress.

A few points augmenting what's already been said:

1) James makes a good point about renewable electricity. Clearly paying extra for renewable energy supports the development of wind and PV, but arguably, one should look at the complete energy mix of the grid from which one draws power, since all the electrons from all the sources are in the mix.

2) Here in central Jersey, I'm able to get about half my heat from wood. It's mostly deadfall that I split and dry for over a year before burning. When you count the gas and oil used by my chainsaw, pickup truck, and log-splitter, and the embedded energy in these tools, the EROI of wood is very approximately 40:1. My stove burns with limited air, and so I produce some charcoal, (biochar) which is carbon permanently taken from the air and so offsets the fossil inputs a little.

3) Wood is indeed not for everyone though. There's a real potential of depleting our forests if we're heating with live trees cut for wood. A while back there was an article in Science mag (I can dig it up if you want) that suggested North America could approximately double its consumption of wood and still be in a sustainable mode. The potential of wood may be better than that - if, for example, fast-growing trees were grown on an industrial scale, harvested, pyrolized to obtain some energy and also biochar.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mike: I disagree on the renewable electricity. It would seem to me that since my dollars for electricity generation only go to providers of renewable power (wind and small hydro in NY state), I'm only creating demand for more renewable power, and since I support growing renewable power generation as fast as possible, it's all good. Where my electrons come from is formally unanswerable (due to quantum mechanics) and in any case doesn't matter since it's the dollar flow that drives decision-making, not the electron flow.

Mike Aucott said...

If your electricity provider is 100% hydro and wind,I agree. But sometimes it is hard to tell where providers actually get their power. If your provider also includes fossil in their mix, isn't it possible that what you pay them helps them sell fossil-generated electricity to others at a lower rate? If this is the case, it's not all good. However, if your dollar flow is mostly driving development of renewables, I could agree that it's mostly good.

Stuart Staniford said...


This is what I'm buying:

A Quaker in a Strange Land said...

Great post.

We live in a mild climate in MIddle Tn. So far this winter we have not used central heat. Our house is small, appears to be reasonably insulated, well designed for passive solar... and we cheat with small kerosene radiant heaters (the small, box shaped, 10k BTU jobbies). The house is much colder in some parts than is comfortable... so we make use of the kitchen area/family room (one big room). At night we use electric blankets.

As we live in a rural community, wood heat is a reasonable answer here. I have access to enough dead fall and such for our needs in this climate (I think). So... after reading this our next home project is the removal of a tacky gas fireplace that we never, ever used and the installation of a wood stove.

Regarding electric... because the house is very small we just don't use very much - and the TN valley generates a good amount via hydro (or so they tell me). We already turned the electric in the barns off, so I don't see doing a solar installation just yet.

Mike Aucott said...


Thanks for the info on the source of your electricity. If I lived in your area I would probably buy from them too. And again, contratulations on what you've accomplished so far.

I've researched this issue further with the help of some friends and colleages. In my view there are some pesky issues with buying electricity through green power providers that need to be considered. These include cdertification and the lack of a one-to-one carbon reduction. We've already discussed the latter a bit and may have to agree to disagree.

Regarding certification: Renewable providers agree to purchase blocks of renewable power equal to the demand of their customers. But, in the absence of third-party certification, how can one be sure they actually do this? Some states, probably including NY, have a certification process, and, with luck, this is enforced rigorously. There is also an independent certification organization, Your power provider's web site says they work through Sterling Planet, which checks out favorably based on my limited review. But, in general when buying power from a renewable supplier, it seems wise to at least ask for a letter of documentaion on the sources of the energy from a third party such as an accounting firm or another well-known organization.

And, let me reiterate my second concern: Adding renewables doesn't necessarily reduce the grid's total carbon emissions. When X amount of renewable capacity is added to the grid, there is no guarantee that X amount of fossil capacity will be retired. Adding rewables should gradually lower the carbon intensity of the grid. But the absolute amount of carbon emitted could stay the same, or even grow, if fossil capacity isn't retired or is added (e.g. new NG plants). (This is why we need a carbon tax!)

Your point about dollar flow driving decision-making is well taken. However, purchasing renewable power from a provider who feeds that power into the grid is essentially making a donation in support of the development of renewable power, not actually purchasing renewably-generated electrons. As long as one is getting power from the grid, I'd argue that one should consider one's carbon emissions per kWh to be equivalent to the rate of the power control area in which one resides - this is what the planet sees.

Stuart Staniford said...

"As long as one is getting power from the grid, I'd argue that one should consider one's carbon emissions per kWh to be equivalent to the rate of the power control area in which one resides - this is what the planet sees."

I have to say I disagree very strongly with this point of view as it provides no incentive to anyone motivated to buy green power. If it costs extra and is no better for the planet, why bother? You're essentially saying that all the people who don't bother buying green power and those who do should get equal credit for the carbon emissions in their area. I think it's much better to assign credit/blame on the basis of individual responsibility rather than saying the problem can only be solved with collective action of the entire grid.

Of course I agree that the whole thing would work better with a carbon tax. But it's clear that very much of a carbon tax in the US is not politically feasible at present. The way to make it politically feasible is to demonstrate that the alternative is viable and not too painful. And that means scaling renewables and efficiency measures as rapidly as possible in the absence of the carbon tax. And green power is one good way to help that along.

Mr. Sunshine said...

Stuart, At this point, renewable energy, excepting hydro, amounts to 1% of the US national energy load, and that is by nameplate power, not actual production capacity. So it really doesn't impact baseload generation operations - one can't really dial back 1000MW coal boiler by fractions of a percent in each service area. My place is off grid energy positive - but except to me, that's meaningless.

If you're looking at hybrid vehicles, check out the Ford (!) C-Max. I just traded in a 2006 Prius for a new one, which over the first 1,000 miles, has proven to be a decent vehicle. Good mileage, more power than the Prius, and it was $2000 less.

Thanks for your blogging again this year, and my best,


neroden@gmail said...

I'm going to pop in to say that I buy my "100% renewable" electricity from the Energy Co-op of America. They don't advertise, but they seem to provide the best rates for renewable electricity thanks to near-zero overhead.

CelloMom said...

For renters: you can always make a deal with your landlord. My parents' landlady offered to replace an ancient fridge - I offered to pay half of it, so I could get them an EnergyStar rated fridge. We got the money back in the very first year from electricity savings. Never mind the carbon savings.

So, for the next step: time to re-consider what's on your driveway? Cars are typically a whopping 25% of a US household's carbon footprint.