Greatest good

global warmingI realized the other day that the next realistic steps my household might take to reduce carbon emissions are to carpool more (we commute to work together but could add up to 2 more people in our car) and to move to geothermal heat.

Geothermal systems – even with the rebates – would probably cost $15,000. That’s a ton of money. Even supposing we had $15K to spend on a system (and that’s a big “if”), would it be the best way to spend it? What would truly be the most carbon-reduction-bang for fifteen thousand bucks?

Some initial ideas:

  • Help 15 households insulate their attics to R-60
  • Buy super-efficient furnaces for several households
  • Help 3-5 farmers build hoophouses to produce local veggies through the winter
  • Invest in a “neighborhood energy startup” with a gasifier (makes heat and electricity and biodiesel), possibly with a permaculture system of greenhouses, coppice groves, etc.
  • Just buy land and start a coppice grove for sustainable heating fuel production, and possibly invest in a pelletizer
  • Some kind of education program? I’m thinking the actual return is hard to measure, and it’s not education about global warming that folks around here lack.

Anyone have data on any of these? Or other ideas? bonus points for things that are done once and keep on saving energy and reducing emissions without any further attention or work.



  1. ChardLady said,

    November 5, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Provide rain barrels to over 100 families, eliminating or reducing the need to pump and process water and improving garden productivity. (Do I get bonus points?)

    • Emily said,

      November 6, 2009 at 10:08 am

      Bonus points, and big glass of water! 🙂

  2. Heather said,

    November 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Wow. Your blog is always so good for making me think.

  3. ilex said,

    November 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Hmm… worm bins for all! OK, I’m not so good in the original ideas department.

    But I LOVE the idea of the hoophouses for local farmers, and the neighborhood energy dept. And chardlady’s water barrel idea is fabulous.

    • Emily said,

      November 6, 2009 at 4:14 pm

      Venture capital to start-up cheesemakers? 🙂

  4. Geomom said,

    November 8, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    We have geothermal heat–and it still requires a lot of electricity to keep the pumps moving and the furnace blowing–and when it’s too cold for the geothermal to keep up the emergency electric back-up kicks on (and we don’t know how to stop it).

    We’ve been seriously thinking about buying a wood-burning stove to reduce our electricity usage during the coldest days (and make it a little cosier than the 62 we keep it at). So, how about a wood-burning stove and coppice grove?

    I like the idea of gasifier’s, however, in my day job, I clean up old manufactured gas plant (MGP) sites that gasified coal in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to produce gas for gas lights. They left HUGE environmental problems behind, and I don’t know if the modern incarnations would have the same issues or not–I haven’t read anything about the harmful by-products they may produce.

    • Emily said,

      November 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

      Is your geothermal air-to-air or ground-to-air? I’d be looking at ground-to-air, since the air-to-air only work down to what, 40 degrees?

      The gasifier I’ve been reading about runs on coppiced willow. I’d think it would have fewer downsides than gasified coal.

      • Geomom said,

        November 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

        We have buried loops with fluid, and radiant floor heat and some forced air.

        I would think it would have fewer downsides with coppiced willow.

  5. MK said,

    November 8, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    How about spending $15K to feed the hungry, and then do the free thing with the carpooling? I realize that feeding the hungry probably doesn’t reduce your carbon foot print, but it is still a good idea. Great picture of you in this month’s Edible WoW!

    • Emily said,

      November 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

      That’s a whole other line item, and one that gets plenty of cash and fresh garden produce from me every year!

  6. MK said,

    November 9, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    i guess my $15K idea to feed the hungry is similar to the build a hoop house idea. I thought biodiesel was not good for the environment, also burning wood pellets….wouldn’t it be better for the environment to not do either of those things? I think I am voting for the geothermal idea because it will help you save money over the long run. I think you have propane out there, right?

  7. Suzie said,

    November 17, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    These are all great ideas! We really should do more energy-efficiency for our house – good stewardship for the future.

    As always, in the case of education programs, consider linking up with existing outlets for i.s.o. reinventing the wheel. Programs exist, but maybe they’re not reaching out in the best way, so they’re not having the reach they could.

  8. joeyscorner said,

    December 13, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    For the education component, I’d suggest working with a local school to start a worm composting program. Or just giving classes for worm composting for neighbors. And it’s actually income generating because those castings are worth their weight in gold (almost).

    We do worm composting and throw away very little trash.

  9. Wendy said,

    December 13, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Oops, I was signed in as my daughter. She’d say the same thing about the worms, though.

  10. June 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I’m late reading this post but better late than never… $15,000 is a lot of money. It is twice what we spent building our whole house. More than twice in fact as we only spent $7,000 (actual construction, not purchase of the land). We heat with about 3/4 of a cord of wood per year in the mountains of northern Vermont. I cut the wood from the dead wood of our land. A few dollars in gas for the chainsaw every year and a good workout.

    That $7K includes the wood stove so in effect one could have built two of our houses for the cost of the geothermal system and our house still uses less energy than the geothermal would. The reason this works is our house is very high thermal mass inside of an insulating shell. Not much insulation either, only 4″ because that was what I could afford at the time. Adding more actually wouldn’t change things much. It is the 100,000 lbs of masonry in the house, the small house, that soaks up the days heat and evens out the year’s heat that makes the difference. The house is the system.

    When I see articles in the newspaper where they talk about these sorts of ‘super efficient’ furnaces I see them as PR, as spin. They aren’t. Better would be to build the house from scratch so that it works as part of the system. No mechanical parts either.

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