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Re-Booting Our Carbon Footprint Journey 2.0

I am struggling to best frame my household’s renewed journey to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. The challenge is to portray this adventure, which we first attempted in the late 90s, in such a way that it is perceived as helpful and inspirational and NOT sanctimonious or prescriptive. The wildly disparate responses to “masking” during COVID have greatly heightened my concerns in telling this story. How could what seemed to be a universally beneficial action of so little incremental cost and inconvenience - that reduces the risk of severe consequences to our most vulnerable compatriots - be interpreted as anything but respect for each other? Yet it was construed in ways I never could have imagined. If the response to a seemingly clear and simple act was so contentious, what hope is there to rally the necessary support and behaviors needed to address the far more complex challenges of climate change?

Meanwhile the imperative to take immediate action on climate change is compounding by the day. To put it into context, Children born today would have to use about 8 times LESS carbon-generating energy than their grandparents will have used over their lifetimes, if we are to keep the globe’s average temperature increase below 1.5⁰C[1]. The margin of error is razor thin. Scientists universally agree that a 2⁰ C increase represents the clear point where major ecosystems fail autocatalytically.

Most colleagues, friends, and family in my world accept the science, recognize the signals, and are extremely concerned with climate change. They want to take meaningful action but don’t exactly understand what that means. I have devoted my decades long career to developing renewable energy resources and sustainable infrastructure solutions. Only now

do I feel that I fully fathom the depth of the challenge and what translates to meaningful action at a personal and household level. I only got there after shedding my responsibilities of running a small clean tech firm that I founded 18 years ago and re-immersing myself in how our household used energy, water, and food resources, get up to date with the consequences of that usage and explore the latest available solutions, technical and otherwise accessible to us.

I dug up what we did in the late 90s. Actions included replacing incandescent bulbs with florescent lighting, installing a 1.6 kW PV system, a solar water heating system, setback thermostats and an PV attic ventilation fan. With our children entering grade school, my wife working full time, and launching my own business – combined with life’s various twists and curves – we effectively abandoned the journey not terribly long after starting it. Picking it up almost 20 years later is like starting from scratch. The good news is that the understanding of the situation has advanced and there are so many more tools to help develop a sound roadmap. Still, I elected to grind through my own analysis and research. I went through the utility bills, converted to a common unit of energy and researched CHG equivalencies from electricity, natural gas, and gasoline. I arrived at household carbon footprint of 17 metric tons of GHG per year or 8.5 metric tons per person. It did not include any assessment of eating red meat or airline travel. I then compared my assessment with a recommended website, where you input information from utility bills, odometers, and behavior. The results were right in line with my independent findings. I was pleased to see alignment, both for my own calculations and the utility of this set. It was also a much simpler process than my own effort. On the other hand, even though our household is below the national (8%) and Greater Boston (3%) average, I was disheartened. Our progress since abandoning the journey had been anemic and we now have such a long way to go to do our part to reach a household goal of 2.0 metric tons per person.

So just like teenagers facing final exams, we must cram…but the stakes are vastly different. There is no opportunity to retake the exam, negotiate with the teacher for a higher grade or commit to doing better next year. We don’t have decades to attain the 2.0 tons per person goal. By all accounts, as a Country, we should be at this household level before 2030. This means taking action that is both thoughtful and decisive. These seemingly contradictory characteristics can be achieved through collaboration. Pride, judgementalism, NIH, sanctimony, and greed may have their place in our society going forward, but not if we are to collectively tackle climate change. We can accept higher risks if we share in them. If we adopt a mindset that learns from mistakes rather than fears them, we can move with increasing confidence. To the degree that we build our collective roadmap on the bases of above, our ambitious goals become more attainable.

The company behind the web site, Climate Solutions Net has a slogan that captured my imagination: “A Fit Bit for Climate Action”. Their site and business model also offer means to aggregate household footprints and track collective progress for a town or community. The metaphor seems most apropos. It’s well understood that getting into physical shape and watching your weight and what you eat - leads to longer, happier lifetimes. The “Fitbit” is a simple, yet powerful tool to help one individually pursue and make progress against that goal. In the United States, as a society, we are energy and carbon “obese”. Getting the country in “carbon footprint shape” will require sustained efforts at all levels from individual to national. It will be messy – with lots of folks doing lots of things at the same time. That shouldn’t mean that we don’t even attempt applying sensible metrics and effective planning tools to the process. Tools like starts by identifying where one’s footprint is the most significant and provides thoughtful links to an array of resources to support actions that can fit within one’s objectives, timeframe, and constraints (budget). By creating a community baseline and tracking progress in the aggregate, such tools can become a highly efficient and motivational vehicle to effect the collective change.

I am committed to getting our household to 2.0 (metric tons per person) ahead of the national curve by 3 years or more. In doing so, I hope to help nurture a community that shares and learns from each other by example. This requires sustained focus and possibly opening oneself to criticism and/or embarrassment of one form or the other. For instance, I admit to not understanding the impact of our natural gas usage until recently. In fact, back in the mid-90s, we converted our stove and dryer to natural gas because of the general sense that it was more efficient and cleaner than electricity. Today, the grid is significantly cleaner and electric appliances have gotten more efficient. Meanwhile, gas lines aged another 25 years and more health studies and sensitive air monitors are uncovering several reasons to be concerned with the use natural gas appliances in your house.

It has been an unexpected luxury to have the time at home (thanks in part to COVID) to assess our situation, research options and establish a roadmap to 2.0. Our “carbon diet” starts in earnest at the beginning of the new year. As I write this blog, another 6.7 kW of PV panels are getting installed at our house to take advantage of the current tax credits before they drop at the start of next year. We invested in an electric assist bike in part to do more errands around town while supporting both physical and climate health. We will be converting our gas stove and oven to electric induction and convection and replacing gas fired forced hot water piping with mini-split air source heat pumps and upgrading windows and insulation as part of a first-floor renovation. Smart thermostats will accompany the introduction of mini-splits. We anticipate that 2nd floor renovations with similar upgrades to heating system, windows and insulation and a trade in of hybrid vehicle for all-electric to follow in the coming couple of years as budget allows. Curtailment of red meat consumption and investing in carbon offset efforts should get us the rest of the way to the target. It is also our intention to install a battery bank to enhance our household energy resilience while sharing this distributed storage resource with the town’s municipal light plant to use in grid-support and demand reduction. The town is currently assessing the opportunity as part of a broader program. The adventure could present a model “puzzle piece” to use in the town’s overall hazard mitigation plan.

The other piece of good news is that the investments in these measures are relatively modest with reasonable payback periods, producing meaningful savings that go long into the future. Our investment in the first phase of this project will be in the $20,000 range and produce savings that pay back the investment in about 7 to 8 years. The major equipment is designed to last 15 to 30 years and is expected to cut approximately 3 tons of carbon from our annual diet. Fortunately, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts supports various lending programs that provides cost-effective financing of this type of equipment.

Our household roadmap to 2.0 will not be complete without a strategy for making it part of a massive multiplication process. Addressing climate change is not a matter of “survival of the fittest” but rather “survival of the cooperative”. Time is of the essence. This blog post/article represents an initial step to share and solicit comments and exchange. Signing on to and encouraging my town to adopt a broader community program of the same or similar ilk is another. Mentoring friends and neighbors is a third step, while applying the deeper understanding and credibility the experience brings to advocate for critical changes in policy and regulations at local, state, and federal levels is a fourth. 2020 has been a very tough year, but in hindsight it may be the year where our collective vision on climate change and the other existential threats to our society got a whole lot better. Pun intended.

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