A friend asked me if climate change was going to blow over, like the crises he had faced during his life: nuclear war and overpopulation. I pointed out that, even if we stop today, the carbon we put into the atmosphere was going to continue to heat up the earth for decades before leveling off. The carbon is a solid fact, not a future projection, and the heat that carbon is trapping is unavoidable.
“Well” he replied, “What if someone invents a machine that removes carbon from the atmosphere?”
It took me awhile to realize why I found this conversation so frustrating. He’s asking if I think someone is going to invent a magic bullet to halt climate change. The reason I’m frustrated is because we already have a magic bullet to stop climate change: it’s called energy efficiency.
We already have a magic bullet to stop climate change: it’s called energy efficiency
Solar power (which is close to my heart) and electric cars are great, but the biggest lever we have to stop global warming is carrying out our daily life with more efficient appliances and better insulation.
Why is this? First world nations like Canada, with sophisticated economies, are emitting more carbon than developing economies. Canada, compared to the world at large, is a wealthy nation. Poverty exists in Canada, but it looks nothing like poverty in Brazil or India. We drive cars and buy washing machines, replace heaters and build additions.
Because we have the carbon footprint of a 300 pound gorilla, we have a lot of room to reduce that footprint
On a personal level we make millions of choices a day, picking the cheapest, or the one on sale, or a color that matches the stove. On a larger level companies and governments make decisions about investment in oil, where to manufacture cars, which source to use in a supply chain.
We need to move from making decisions only for the immediate future, based on this quarter’s stock price. We need to move from buying the cheapest hot water heater to buying the one that will be cheapest to run.
Insulating a house is not sexy
It doesn’t come with the thrill of a new car. It doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight like solar panels. But an average residential solar array is about 5.0 kW in size. With the sun we get the Okanagan it can generate 6,000 kWh in a year. Compare this to your total electricity use of 10,000 kWh per year.
That electricity bill comes from space heating, water heating, appliances, lighting and cooling. You could reduce this bill to 1/3th of it’s original size with energy efficiency.
Here we have to distinguish between energy savings and energy efficiency: energy savings is when you turn something down or off. Energy efficiency is when you replace something inefficient, like baseboard heat, with something efficient, like a heat pump. This is not that different than your money: “Savings” is when you choose not to buy something. “Efficiency” is when you go out and get a job that pays you more. Over the course of your lifetime, savings will not add up to the amount you make from a steadily increasing wage.
We tried energy savings in the 1970’s. It’s not big enough to get us where we want to go. What we need to do is use 30 years of technological innovation (the magic bullet) to start putting energy efficiency to work. Many of our basic appliance designs date back to 1950!
Choosing and installing these technological innovations is not a DIY project. You will be changing major systems (like your home’s envelope or HVAC) and it is worth doing a home energy audit to pick and choose your projects. Your money will go further used on energy efficiency than jumping ahead to install a solar electric system.
If you have problems summoning up enthusiasm for energy efficiency think of it this way: every kilowatt hour you save is a negawatt — something that doesn’t need to be generated by natural gas peaker plants. Each negawatt is worth every bit as much as a watt generated by a solar array, and will come at half the cost.
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Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley clean energy firms before moving (happily!) to sunny Penticton. Comments to Kristy.Dyer+BP@gmail.com
Kristy’s articles are archived at teaspoonenergy.blogspot.com