Updated: Mar 27, 2022
A Corollary to Rebooting our Climate Journey 2.0 from December of 2020.
If this headline comes across like a lead-up to one of those advertisements that lures readers to consider their own weight and, if overweight, contemplate acting… then it has done its job. If you think that what follows is one of those quick fix schemes or magic pills, then you will be sadly disappointed. Instead of heightening self-conscientiousness about individual weight and appearance, this article seeks to redirect that acute awareness to our carbon footprint, be it individual, household and/or community. In this case, almost every American is way overweight …. on average by 10 times!
When one gets overweight, they feel it. They tire more easily, get hungrier faster, lose focus, sleep restlessly, readily get winded and generally feel uncomfortable. Their pocketbooks feel it with higher medical bills and replacement clothing. They may choose to ignore the signals, but the natural signals are unequivocal and comparably swift to show up. When one is attuned to their body’s signals, making routine measurements, the feedback loop is exceptional. The natural feedback loop for our carbon footprint is wholly inferior to individual weight and infinitely more complicated, yet the consequence of mismanaging it is enormous. Today’s trends in a warming climate - more severe storms, drought, flooding, heatwaves, and disease - are a product of excessive greenhouse gas emissions from decades ago. One may not readily make the connection, but our pocketbooks feel it through increased societal costs (taxes, medical, insurance). The rapid rise in gasoline and fuel prices accompanying Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine should be the biggest wake up call to date of the world’s vulnerability to its addiction to fossil fuels. This screams for greater awareness and sense of urgency  on a massive scale with an infinitely more effective feedback loop.
This is not achieved exclusively at the federal level, nor corporate, nor any other single aspect of our society, but through every sector of society – from individual to global. While I have delved Beacon Climate into community level effort… acting at the individual, household and grassroot level is as important. That was the basis for last year’s blog: Rebooting our Climate Journey 2.0. I had promised to post a follow up report after the first round of measures were taken with the hope that it can help others on their own journey.
In that original post, I established the goal of getting to a carbon footprint of 2.0 tons per person per year at least 3 years ahead of the nationwide timeframe. At the time, our household was at 10 tons per person, but just completing installation of a 6.7 kW PV system, with firm plans to electrify our cooking and switch part of the house to heat pumps over the course of the following 6-month period. We conservatively estimated that we could drop our carbon outtake by 1.5 tons per person. Sources such as www.werenew.com (see BrightAction screen shot) suggest that, if everything worked swimmingly, we might be closer to 3 tons per person (6 tons/household).
In reviewing the actual data, for the year, we are much closer to the 1.5-ton per person reduction level. So, 1st milestone accomplished…. but just barely. The following chart reflects how we compared on a monthly basis from the year 2021 and 2020.
There are a handful of reasons why we might have been closer to the more conservative estimate than the optimistic one. The PV system that we installed produced 4,900 kWh when it was forecasted to produce on average 5,600 kWh – a shortfall of 700 kWh or 12%. The chart shows the greatest shortfall during the summer months when the production is expected to be the highest. Some of these months had extended periods of heavy rain and cloudiness. The effect of shading from westerly trees may also have been underestimated. Still, the impact of this particular shortfall amounts to all of ¼ of a metric ton for the household.
Additionally, 2021 only includes the beneficial contribution of the heat pumps starting in September of 2021. Their greatest contribution comes in the “shoulder” periods of heating: March through May and October through December. A third cause probably relates to the way that manufacturers rate performance of their appliances vs. how they are used and perform in the field. It is good practice to apply a modest safety factor to manufacturers energy ratings. The last cause probably applies to adapting our own behaviors to carbon-footprint reduction, particularly as we introduce these new technologies into our lives. It can take some trial and error figuring out how to get maximum benefit from induction stove, high efficiency dishwasher and heat pumps. Specific training and/or more clear and compelling training materials, particularly regarding the heat pumps, would have saved some time and minor discomfort on this front.
Speaking about the heat pump, as I write this article, it is not functioning. Last week, only six months into service, the compressor failed. Diagnosing the problem took two days. The service people were on hold with factory technical support for 1 hour before they were able to talk with anyone. It will take about 10 days before a replacement compressor arrives. The work is entirely covered under warranty. Fortunately, the heat pump only served the first floor and we retained some of the baseboard forced hot water heating from the gas fired furnace. The warming weather has also helped. Naturally I wonder what our experience would have been if we made a wholesale switch to heat pumps and this happened when the cold weather was at its most extreme.
I raise this story not to cast shadows on the technology or the service, but to emphasize the importance of “phasing in” new technology and setting the expectations that some end-user engagement is required. The role of early adopters and early majority users in speeding the transition to decarbonized energy economy cannot be overstated enough. Competent and purposeful companies developing, manufacturing, and deploying these technologies will embrace this process - improving, growing, and gaining competitive advantage from it. Government programs should be doing everything that they can to catalyze this process without turning it into a free-for-all for profiteers, scammers, and poor-quality products to thrive.
Our efforts to decarbonize last year cost on the order of $31,000, in which about $9,000 was offset by incentives at the state and local level and another $7,000 will be offset by tax breaks. This cost was almost $2,000 over what it is today because of an archaic zoning law that mandated a new plot plan with the addition of an air source heat pump.
Originally, we were looking at an 8-to-10-year payback on the net-investment, but with the recent skyrocketing energy costs, that period may prove much shorter. There is every reason to believe that such energy price volatility will continue if not exacerbate in the years ahead . From the state and local policy perspective, and 4:1 leverage of investment from early majority adoption seems reasonable. There is still vast room for improvement that includes bolstering engagement of LMI communities, enhancing “resilience”, increasing participation and leverage. That is a subject for another discussion.  Originally, we were looking at an 8-to-10-year payback on the net-investment, but with the recent skyrocketing energy costs, that period may prove much shorter. There is every reason to believe that such energy price volatility will continue if not exacerbate in the years ahead . From the state and local policy perspective, a 4:1 leverage of investment from early majority adoption seems reasonable. There is still vast room for improvement that includes bolstering engagement of LMI communities, enhancing “resilience”, increasing participation and leverage. That is a subject for another discussion.
The Last 10 Tons are the Hardest!
Any number of sports analogies apply to the phases ahead. Simply put, making progress against our ultimate goal gets more challenging. The house can afford improved insulation and window replacements, which we intend to pursue with the help of the latest MassSave initiatives. Converting the second floor to heat pump conditioning should be coordinated with a long overdue renovation. Furthermore, the electrical service to the house is only 100 amps. This needs to be upgraded in order to accommodate an additional heat pump and level two electric vehicle charging. An alternative could be incorporating a battery storage system to the house energy system. It would enable household load shifting, thereby staying within capacity limits of existing circuits as well as providing an energy storage resource to support local utilities peak demand reduction efforts as well as resilience in the event of grid outages. With a separate garage that is prohibited by existing town statutes from getting electrical service – we face an additional barrier to transitioning to EV. Perhaps, in much the same way that the town recognized that the plot plan requirement on heat pump installation was deterring urgent decarbonization measures – they will see the same for other outdated or misapplied laws. One such movement underway is to remove longstanding restrictions and related barriers to Adjacent Dwelling Units (ADUs) in the town. This would be a simple sensible step towards improving housing affordability and reducing carbon footprint in the town. It comes with negligible cost to the town government and high “leveraging” potential.
Drop in the Bucket
I am proud to say that we live in a town that has a high level of environmental and climate awareness. The town’s collective intention to promote action on these issues is palpable. There is growing evidence that the municipality and its residents are ready and willing to commit meaningful resources to make that happen. Having said that, the Town is coming from a more distant starting point than the average municipality in the Commonwealth. With homes on the larger size (median 3,826 SF  vs 2,250 SF  national average) and more vehicles with higher single person in single vehicle per household, its per capita carbon footprint is relatively high – (estimated at 11 tons  per capita vs 9.5 tons for greater Boston area). At just under 2,000 sf, our household efforts described in this article are a mere “drop in the bucket” for our community of over 8,000 homes and a teardrop in the oceans when considering the rest of the globe.
Some may ask, why even bother? That question has crossed our minds any number of times. Aren’t there more financially rewarding or more fun ways to spend our limited time and resources? On the surface, the unequivocal answer is “yes”. Upon deeper reflection, stimulated by listening and research  - the reason to pursue this path comes down to personal fulfillment. It feels good! It applies a sense of mindfulness to our everyday lives and adds a sense of purpose – especially at the community and intergenerational levels. The more others embrace it, this tiny drop may become a trickle and start to make meaningful difference against this impending crisis. Yet the line between setting positive examples & helping each other and perceived self-righteousness & mandate can be fine. Crossing it can significantly hinder progress and diminish that sense of fulfillment – and that is one of the last things we would want to do. We recognize the urgent need to tread quickly, but carefully.
Massachusetts has set a critical goal of electrifying 1 million homes by 2030 as one element avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Armed with knowledge and data, each household should set their own path to electrification and net zero in this time frame. This translates to energy auditing at least 100,000 homes per year. Last year, less than 2% of that annual objective was achieved. Suffice it to say that we are not going to make doing things the same old way. We need many great ideas put into practice and great ideas don’t simply age and suddenly emerge as solutions to our problems, they must be nurtured
Our household journey is not intended to be one that we take alone, nor one where we claim bragging rights. It is intended to be part of the learning and nurturing process. Each shared story should be heuristically compiled into data that helps speed the journey of others. We also must acknowledge that what we are asking of each other is hard but convey, with credibility, that it is a journey well worth taking. For those with wherewithal, the time to start is now. The longer we wait to start the process of transitioning in earnest, the greater the likelihood of creating situations for unsavory elements to thrive.
The more of us on this journey, more acutely aware of our carbon footprint, the more accountable that we can hold the companies from which we buy products and services and the leaders that we vote into office. In other words, the better the carbon awareness feedback loop. Who knows, in the process of addressing this existential threat to our communities, our average individual weight could drop to healthier levels. Those annoying weight loss advertisements could join fossil fuels as a relic of the past.
 'This crisis will accelerate the energy transition' (msn.com)  The rebate from the town was $1,000. That law was recently repealed because it was at cross-purposes with the heat pump rebate program and townspeople's experiences like ours  Green Upheaval: The New Geopolitics of Energy (foreignaffairs.com)  Wellesley, MA Market Trends - Movoto  • Median size of U.S. single family house | Statista  SEC-Report-to-ATM-2021-PDF (wellesleyma.gov)  Mindfully Facing Climate Change (buddhistinquiry.org)  Massachusetts should be converting 100,000 homes a year to electric heat. The actual number: 461 - The Boston Globe (Note: The Globe Report does not include energy audits through MLP programs like ENE and MWEC)