Carbon Budget – Year in Review


Goal: 10.25 tonnes
Actual: 14 tonnes

Well, we missed our goal. By a *lot*. We used only about 1 tonne less carbon than last year, so far as I can tell from my less-than-perfect recordkeeping for 2007-08. I’m not happy about it, and I’m not making excuses. I am looking for reasons, though, and ways to cut. But I also feel like we’ve hit a plateau, and it’s going to take some oomph and hard decisions to further reduce our carbon output.

Goal Used June 2008-May 2009 Conversion factor Carbon emitted US Ave* Our use as % of US Ave**
Gasoline 300 gal 581 (26,000 miles) 19.35 lb/mi 11,244 lb 1000 gal 58%
Air travel 9500 mi 6715 mi 0.55 lb/mi 3693 lb 2400 mi 280%
Electricity 4500 kwh 4970 kwh 1.4 lb/kwh 6958 lb 11,000 kwh 45%
Propane 400 gal 689 gal 12.7 lb/gal 8750 lb 1100 gal 63%
Wood 1 cord 1 cord 150 lb/cord 150 lb ? ?
Total carbon emissions 10.25 tonnes 14 tonnes 2205 lb/tonne 24,084 lb 22.7 t 48%

* per household, or for 2 people
**  Every place you look will tell you a different number for average US carbon emissions per household. To get the average figure of 22.7 tonnes, I used the same conversion factors I used for us and applied them to the US averages I found.

Agonizing detail, including several surprising ways we reduced our impact, after the cut…

Here are some factors to take into consideration

  • Most of our family lives far away – 600-1000 miles away. Not visiting is not an option at this point in time.
  • My husband was participating in some training that required 1300-mile round trips 3x/year. He carpooled with 2 other people and he always drove, because our Prius gets the best gas mileage of the available options. That training is done, and will eliminate nearly 400o miles of travel next year.
  • Our stove, dryer, and hot water are electric. No other option where we live, except maybe solar water pre-heating.
  • We had a leak in our propane tank for 6-9 months last year.
  • We live in southern Michigan; temps got down to -20 at times this winter. Our thermostat is set at 55 when we’re out of the house; 63 when we’re home and awake; 57 overnight.
  • We bought a full cord of wood but didn’t use it – next year, we’ll do more wood heat instead of heating the whole house.
  • We bought wind offsets from our power company AND from Native Energy, to the tune of 125% of our electric usage. However, we’re counting offsets as a “gift” and recording our actual usage here.
  • Our wood was harvested by a neighbor about 3 miles from the house and consisted mainly of ash trees killed by the emerald ash borer.

Things that really, really helped us save energy

We had already plucked a lot of low-hanging fruit like CFLs, carpooling to work, and putting plastic on the windows in the winter. Here are a few things that don’t show up on many how-to-save-energy lists that REALLY worked for us:

  • Fixing the propane leak. The month we got it fixed, we saved 125 gallons of propane over the previous month. If we’d fixed the leak earlier, we might have made our propane goal.
  • Putting in the fireplace insert . Inserts seal up tight, like a wood stove, and block the flow of warm air up the chimney. Keep in mind – we had an inflatable flue blocker installed, but you could tell air was always moving through there. So fixing (sealing) the fireplace let us turn the temp down, saved 175 gallons of propane (maybe twice that, if we’d fixed the propane leak sooner), and felt *warmer*. If you can’t spring for a fireplace insert (~$5000), seriously consider getting the chimney permanently capped (~$350). You are losing more heat up the chimney than you’re gaining by burning wood – not to mention that inserts trap/reburn much, much more of the pollution caused by burning wood.
  • Heating only the main living space, when practical. The fireplace heats the living room but doesn’t do much for the rest of the house. We’d heat with wood one evening and one or two weekend days each week and let the furnace kick on overnight. We didn’t start a fire when we were only going to be home and awake for an hour or two. Next year, we’ll try to do more of our heating with wood, though that may mean we use a small electric heater in the bedroom to take the chill off. I’ve discovered it’s hard for me to sleep when my nose is cold and runny.
  • I discovered I feel colder when the temp gets up to 68, vs. 63 degrees. We’re still learning how to regulate the heat from the fireplace, so there were times when the living room got up to 68 according to the room thermometer. I generally felt colder then than I did when the fireplace was still heating up and the room was 62-63 degrees. My only explanation for this is that maybe I was getting too warm and starting to sweat, which then made me feel cold.
  • Our furnace has a large phantom power draw. In May, 2009, our electric usage was 130kwh (30%!) less than average. I can think of two things we did during that time: One, we turned off our radon fan for a week or so. (But I’ve done that before and not noticed a dip in kwh). Secondly, our furnace has an off switch right on the furnace. (It looks like a light switch.) I turned the furnace off at the switch off for about half of May, rather than just turning the thermostat off. I think our furnace was drawing a lot of “standby power” even when it was not in use. Hopefully, we can keep the central system off for the summer, except for the nights when it’s too hot and humid to sleep.

So ok. We were nearly 4t over our goal, and only about 1t less than my estimate of last year’s emissions. But we still managed to be under 50% of average US carbon emissions this year, which isn’t bad. It’s still too much, but it’s not horrible. I guess it takes more than a year to make changes of this scope.

What these results tell us

  • We drive a lot. Even at an average 45 mpg, gasoline is our #1 carbon emission. We do carpool, combine trips, and all that good stuff, but we’re 11 miles from town, so round trips add up. Long car trips are our big downfall, though. And they’re tough to cut because our best friends, most of our family, and important parts of our spiritual life are 650 miles away.
  • We need to find a more efficient way to heat our home in the winter. We insulated the attic to R65 a couple years ago, and we put the fireplace insert in, but heating 1800 square feet for 2 people is just silly.
  • We use more electricity than we could possibly “make up for” with solar, wind, or human power. While our electric usage is less than half US average, and I don’t think we have that many appliances, lights, etc., we still use way more electricity than we should. We use about 13.5 kwh/day; suggested use for a solar array is 3 kwh/day. This is a tough one to cut, because out here in the boonies there’s no alternate fuel for hot water, stove, and dryer, and I’d thought we had already cut all phantom power and useless gadgets.

Changes we’re planning to make next year

  • Keep the furnace turned off at the switch as much as possible without freezing people or pipes.
  • Heat more with wood – any time we’re in the house and awake for more than 2-3 hours.
  • Insulate the walls of the house and see if we can turn the thermostat down any more.
  • Get a new, better-sealed and -insulated front door.
  • I’m going to shower only every other day, and wash my hair on the off days. (I have a really hard time getting out of a hot shower! I tried timing myself this year, which helped, but I think just skipping showers will be easier with better results.)
  • Washing clothes on true cold, rather than “auto temp cold” – which is actually using some hot water.
  • Fewer long trips by car.
  • Air travel is dicey; we have family with health issues and won’t have as much control over our need to fly as we’d like.
  • Experiment more with environmental energy: solar cooking, haybox cooking, freezing jugs of water on the deck in the winter and putting them in the fridge, etc.
  • Contemplate unplugging the fridge in the winter (use ice jugs and turn it into a cooler) and unplug the tiny chest freezer in the summer (eat all the food until harvest/hog season comes back).

So that’s where we are. Next year’s goal is 10.5 tonnes. We’ll see how that goes!

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7 Comments

  1. June 5, 2009 at 6:28 am

    I understand your frustration at not having cut your impact more, but look at that chart again, Emily — you had a significant drop from January to February (two very cold months) and then dropped WAY down for spring. So the measures you took really paid off, and you have great ideas for going further. Even if you didn’t cut as much as you wanted, your learning curve jumped exponentially, and you’re better prepared for this year. Pat yourself on the back for that much!

    Thinking about not heating as much space — one thing the Renaissance Man did in his barely-heated and leaky house this past winter was to open and shut furnace vents as needed to redirect the heated air just to spaces in use (living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, office when needed). He also hung blankets on the drafty windows and in the doorways between rooms. The result? a general house temperature of 55-62 F ended up feeling perfectly livable (as long as you also wore layers, socks, and blankets :-)).

    It sounds silly, but wearing a hat/head scarf and socks to bed will keep you warmer there. And there are always hot water bottles… 🙂

    • Emily said,

      June 5, 2009 at 8:53 am

      Thanks, Jennifer. I’m trying to focus on the positive, but I see a need for improvement…and I’m not sure how to go about it, which is a little scary, frankly.

      The spikes in the graph correspond to buying propane, since I recorded when I bought it (as opposed to used it). 143 gallons in Sept., 330 in January, and 216 in February. The previous year was almost identical, except Feb was another 325 gallon fill-up. That drop is due entirely to tightening up the valve on the tank and eliminating the leak – and it explains why we weren’t seeing much savings despite some pretty drastic measures. So the upshot is, we don’t yet know the full effect of turning the heat down, but it’s likely going to be significant.

      As for heating only part of the house, we’ve always done the vent thing and curtained off the unheated breezeway. Heating the LR (only) with wood is the next step for us. We’ll just have to watch that we don’t freeze pipes or anything, since the furnace does add some heat to the basement/crawlspace. Hmm…need to add “seal ductwork” to the to-do list…

  2. June 5, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Emily, these posts are just fascinating. I’m planning to work on this kind of thing over the summer, and may well be trying to find out things you’ve found the most useful in tracking all of this.

    • Emily said,

      June 5, 2009 at 8:56 am

      Hooray! Maybe I can’t get down to 25% of US average next year, but if I bring y’all along and cut your easy 25%… 🙂

      FWIW, I use the metrics on this page because they are easy to track once a month. You’ll notice food and consumer goods aren’t listed, because I know myself well enough to know I’d give up if I had to track every pound of food, every day. So I’m focusing on things that a) have a number associated with them and b) I can look at monthly (even after-the-fact). This gives me a good overall idea without an insane amount of work. (I’d track water use, too, if we had a water meter.)

  3. Emily said,

    June 5, 2009 at 9:00 am

    This blog has a great bibliography for carbon footprint calculation. His figures are a little different from mine, but he cites all his sources (many of which I’ve lost…) http://publius2012.wordpress.com/2008/02/15/calculating-reducing-my-carbon-footprint/

  4. Heather said,

    June 5, 2009 at 9:36 am

    I like this. Once I get Will to embrace a “greener” life more fully (he discovered the cleaning power of baking soda the other day and almost fell over), maybe I can work on our carbon footprint.

  5. Marilyn Mayer said,

    October 26, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Great stuff

    If possible, get an energy audit for your house. We got one from a local organization in our area (northern NY). They gave us great ideas like:

    insulate the attic door and crawl space door

    glue foam insulation to the cement blocks on our foundation that are exposed on the inside of our basement

    attach foam insulation sheets under the floor (in the crawl space) – this made a noticeable difference

    use spray foam insulation around pipe exits from our basement

    turn down the thermostat on our water heater

    they can also do a house tightness blower door test, check your windows….

    Other suggestions we have gathered from friends:

    unplug phantom energy consumers when not in use like phone chargers
    VCR/printer…any plug in that has a “Box” at the plug. if it feels warm it is using energy even with the device it feeds is off.

    turn off your computer when you are not using it (or hibernate it)

    window blankets help on cold nights (number of designs you can buy or make now that easily roll up and down (cloth + flexible insulation of various kinds available at the hardware store and fabric store))


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