We've made big changes to our life over the past four years in an effort to reduce our carbon emissions. We didn't do this as some heroic sacrifice, but because it made our life better in real terms, right now.
Update (Mar 22, 2022): Since this piece was originally written, I've replaced the downstairs furnace with one sporting a heat pump to make greater use of the electricity we're creating and have a second electric vehicle. Also, I've changed my mind on induction cooktops. When we eventually replace the range, we'll go electric there as well.
I recently listened to Saul Griffith on the Ezra Klein show about decarbonization. In contrast to a lot of the climate-change discussion we hear, Griffith's message is one I've always resonated with: a decarbonized future is better than what we have now. Too often, climate change is all about the sacrifices we have to make for the planet. That won't sell. I've got personal experience that informs my decision.
I've spent my career in the identity industry and there's an issue, privacy, where the discussion is much the same. I've long maintained that people won't pay for privacy, or will readily give up privacy for convenience. But privacy is foundational to personal autonomy. So if we're going to build a digital life for ourselves, we can't ignore privacy. What to do? Make a system that respects privacy and is a better identity system. Cake eaten; but still there.
All of the politicians are pitching their climate plans from some top-down economic view, saying things like, “We’ll decarbonize this industry by this date.” It all sounds very abstract. No one has presented the Green New Deal from the kitchen table out: What will it look like in my home?
So, I started thinking about my personal efforts to decarbonize. Something we all should think about. Here's what we're done (in roughly the order we did them):
- We've replace all our incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs.
- I've replaced most our gas-powered yard tools with battery-powered versions.
- We've put 40 solar panels on the house that produce about 14 Mwh of electricity per year. I studied this carefully before we got solar and concluded we had about a ten to twelve year payback on a system with at least a twenty year life, so it made financial sense. We're blessed to have retail net metering, so we also have, for a small monthly fee to the electric company, a great big battery.1
- Since we had solar, when we replaced the dryer, we went electric instead of gas.
- Last year, we traded in a 2004 Suburban we'd driven since the kids were little for a Tesla Model 3. Again, having solar influenced that decision because it made it more economically viable.
- We recently replaced the upstairs air conditioner and furnace with one that is more efficient and includes a heat pump. So, unless the temperature is below 27 degrees, we use electricity to heat the upstairs instead of gas. That's most of the time in Utah. Again, the fact that we have solar influenced this decision because it made electricity the cheaper option, rather than a sacrifice.
With all that, there's still more we can do:
- We still have a Ford F-150 pickup truck. I use the truck as a truck quite a bit, so until a good electric option becomes available, I'll keep the Ford. That said, I could get another electric car to use as our second vehicle and just use the truck when I really need a truck.
- The downstairs air conditioner and furnace will probably need to be replaced soon and I'll go with the same set up I did upstairs.
- I bought a brand new snow blower the winter before we went solar. I didn't know enough to look at the electric versions. I only use it 3-4 times per winter, so it's not very economical to replace it.
And there are some things that are hard:
- Our hot water heater is gas and an electric water heater would cost more to operate and might even require upgrading our electrical service, an expensive proposition. I'll continue to monitor this for new options and see if we can discover one that makes financial sense.
- I can't really see cooking on an induction range instead of gas. I've tried them; I know people swear by them. But I'm really in love with our gas range.
I started this post with Saul Griffith's proposition that decarbonization ought to lead to a better life, an amazing future. I believe our efforts are in line with that vision. The Tesla is amazing. The new furnace produces nicer heat than the old one (not as big of swings). I worry less about someone leaving the lights on. And we're saving money (even with the capital costs).
I recognize that I'm blessed to have the means to make capital investments that pay off over time. Not everyone can do that. But I think of our efforts as a vanguard that explores possibilities. Much of this is doable on a larger scale if new construction just built houses this way. They'd be cheaper to operate, safer, and cleaner and the capital cost would be managed alongside the other large capital costs of housing.
The point isn't that everyone should do what I've done. Rather, my point is find out what you can do and do it, especially if it makes your life better in some way.
I realize we're cheating a bit here, but this is about our personal decarbonization. We can't solve the problem of demand shifting solar electricity production on our own.
The demand shifting problem is an interesting one. There are two types: daily and seasonal. Daily demand shifting can be done with batteries in the home. My net metering situation reduces the financial incentive to do this since I don't save money by buying batteries (whereas if I didn't have a good net metering situation, I would). Still, there are advantages that tempt me, like being somewhat self sufficient during power outages.
Seasonal demand shifting isn't something I can do much about on my own. No battery I could buy is big enough to store summer energy for use in the winter. This is an area where commercial and regulatory efforts can make a big impact.
Photo Credit: The same, but different (Carbon) from Tatters (CC BY-SA 2.0)