Carbon Lighthouse makes it profitable for offices, schools, and other commercial and industrial buildings to become carbon neutral, but we do not yet serve individual consumers. Nevertheless, by popular request, we have pooled our collective knowledge and compiled this overview to help you profitably eliminate your personal carbon footprint.
There are many topics in here, so if you only have time to read part of it, try to read a few lines rather than skim to the bottom, realize how long it is, and mutter to yourself, “Oh #*%$, I felt like trying to do something good for the environment, but this is way too long. I’ll never be able to do this.” Instead, try picking a bullet point at random and if it works for you, embrace it. Hopefully it can be a good starting point. This post is not going anywhere; you can always come back to it for more suggestions.
There are two main sections below: actions to take in your residence, and actions to take with your transportation. The focus is on energy since that is the main source of the average person’s carbon footprint. There are many other environmental topics we could have included such as food choice (i.e. the emissions impact of eating steak every day) or product packaging. But we limit ourselves to energy you directly consume, lest this turn into a book.
I. In Your Residence
THE EASY STUFF AT HOME
Lighting upgrades: The most cost-effective measures are replacing:
• Incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents or Energy Star-rated LEDs
• Large halogens, in most homes these are a PAR30 type lightbulb, with compact fluorescents or energy star rated LEDs
• Little halogens, in most homes these are MR16 type lightbulbs, with energy star rated LEDs
Some people are concerned about light color (warm yellow vs. white) when switching from incandescents. If you like the warm, yellow glow of incandescents, you should make sure to choose a warm color compact fluorescent. These exist but you often need to ask! Color is measured in degrees kelvin (K), so a 2700 K compact fluorescent is a nice warm yellow light, while a 4500 K light bulb will be a bright white light.
Thermostats: If you have a thermostat for your heating and cooling, make sure it is programmed properly. Then check again. And again. Vast amounts of energy are wasted conditioning your home when no one is around. If you do not have a programmable thermostat, have one installed; some utilities will supply and install one for free.
Power Strips: Almost all devices in your home use power even when they’re not on. If you go to this list, the average number of watts used is roughly the same as dollars saved annually; multiply by 4 and you get pounds of carbon saved annually. It’s small, but it adds up and is easy to do.
Hot-water line insulation: If you have a domestic water heater, make sure the hot water lines coming out of it are insulated. Insulating the exposed pipes is cheap and easy and saves heating energy.
Window shades: Insulated window shades should be mounted as close to the glass as possible. The air gap between the shade and the window creates an insulating layer of air, the same principle that makes double-pane windows work.
No Cost activities:
• Turn off lights when you leave a room. An oldie but a goodie.
• Close your newly-installed sun-facing window shades on hot days.
• Open your newly-installed sun-facing window blinds on sunny, winter days.
• Because air flow impacts our perception of heat, on hot days, you can achieve the same comfort level with much less energy by using fans as much as possible before switching on the A/C.
• Keep the back of your refrigerator clear. An open area behind the refrigerator allows the condenser coil to dump heat efficiently, reducing the work your compressor does.
• Defrost freezers when ice is ¼” or thicker
• Take a shower instead of a bath to reduce hot water usage.
• Wash only full loads in the dishwasher to conserve hot water.
THE HARDER STUFF AT HOME
Whole House Studies: It is often advisable to undertake a comprehensive home energy study. This is especially true if you feel your home is always drafty in the winter and/or you cannot keep it cool in the summer. These studies involve a comprehensive analysis of energy flows within your home. Often, a blower door test is conducted to test your home for leaks. It is a cool, simple test. To have such a study conducted contact your local electric utility.
Attic and Wall Insulation: These comprehensive studies will likely recommend improving your home – especially your attic – insulation. There are many types of insulation including: fiberglass batts, blown-in cellulose, and rigid foam boards. What matters most is that you insulate at all. The more the merrier!
Window upgrades: Installing double-paned or triple-paned windows is a much-touted energy savings measure. Since the average home’s wall space is only 10-15% windows, wall and attic insulation are usually more important and are likely a better first investment. When deciding whether to upgrade your windows for energy savings reasons, details matter a lot. If you live an area with extreme weather and high electricity prices (for example, Boston, MA) then window retrofits are more likely to be a good investment compared with a temperate region with low energy prices. There’s only one way to find out if a window retrofit is cost-effective for you and unfortunately it’s the hard way: call three contractors, get bids, do a reality check of their proposed savings numbers compared to your actual electricity and natural gas/fuel oil bills, ask the contractors how they arrived at their savings numbers’ predictions, make sure they are using energy modeling software derived from DOE-2 or an alternative that is as good, and if you are capable and willing, do your own energy modeling to check their numbers. Yeah, not that easy.
Though not perfect, here is a way to approximate your maximum possible energy savings from a windows upgrade. First, look at your monthly gas/fuel oil bills for a year, and see how much they increase in the winter vs. the summer. That is your space heating load. It’s unlikely more than 25% of your heating load is going through your windows and your new double-pane windows might be three or four times as effective as your existing windows. So to calculate your maximum possible winter savings take 25% of your heating load and multiply by 0.8. Then do the same process with the difference between your electric bill from the summer vs. winter to calculate your space cooling load. Add up these winter and summer savings, and that is the maximum your annual savings could be from a windows replacement.
Appliances: If your washing machine, refrigerator, dishwasher, TV, or other energy appliance is at the end of its life, you have an easy fix: buy the most energy efficient replacement machine that you can. Energy Star is a helpful rating system available throughout the United States, but there are more and less efficient devices even within Energy Star. So make sure to buy the appliance that uses the fewest Watts or Watt-hours for the amount of washing/cooling/entertainment that you need.
If your equipment is not near the end of its life cycle, the calculation becomes more complex. A good rule here is if your appliance is pre-1995, you are probably better off replacing it as several appliance efficiency standards began kicking in in the early 1990′s. Energy efficiency is good, but buying new appliances every year is neither cost-effective nor great for the planet (it takes energy to gather the parts of the machine, assemble it, and then ship it).
RENEWABLE ENERGY AT HOME
For many homes in urban areas in North America, the optimal renewable electricity solution is a solar array. Small wind solutions exist, and can be a fit; however, the comparative economics between residential-scale solar and wind are complex calculations. So caveat emptor: if you do not understand concepts like “$/kWh” and “capacity factor,” you should probably avoid doing your own shop-at-home comparison. Solar solutions come with the benefit that the residential market has rapidly matured.
Solar arrays for your home will have multiple payment options. You can purchase your own solar array outright. Alternatively, you can have it financed through a lease or a power purchase agreement in which you pay for the energy you use. You capture more financial benefit if you buy your own system, but you have to put in the up-front money yourself as well as be responsible for maintenance. Solar companies that provide you with financing solutions benefit from the tax-advantaged solar asset depreciation write-off that non-businesses, like you the homeowner, cannot use.
Solar installations are an area of rapid innovation. Items like virtual net-metering, new feed-in-tariffs, and other items mean there are likely to be an increasing variety of ways to go solar at home.
When selecting a solar firm, remember that this is a competitive market like any home improvement task. Whatever companies you solicit bids from it is advisable to find an organization that:
• Has a strong reputation
• Explains clearly all tax-related benefits
• Provides a monitoring solution so you can see the power being produced
• Provides you with the warranty info for your panels (these should be at least 20 years)
• Provides you with the warranty info and explanation of replacement costs (if any) for your inverters
• Explains to you how net-metering and true-ups work in your utility region
Solar hot water heating is another good renewable energy option. Solar hot water makes better use of the sun (solar how water panels are closer to 80% efficient, while solar electric panels are only 20% efficient) and will reduce your hot water heating bill. It’s more complicated to measure than solar electric. Solar hot water, however, can be used on a greater number of homes like those with roofs facing many angles or that have some shading.
What type of car to buy
If you are in the market for a car, the short answer is you should buy the car that uses the least amount of gasoline. Hybrid cars are an impressive innovation but just because a car is a hybrid does not mean it is more efficient than all other non-hybrid cars. Many hybrid cars provide excellent city mileage, but others do not; luxury hybrids in particular frequently use more gasoline than a standard fuel-efficient, gasoline-only sedan.
Plug-in hybrids and all electric vehicles are among the most environmentally-beneficial solutions, often better than a hybrid car. How environmentally beneficial your electric car is depends upon the carbon intensity of the electric grid you use for your power. In part because an electric engine is three times more efficient than an internal combustion one, driving an electric car like a Nissan Leaf (an all electric car with a 100-mile range) or a Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid with a 40-mile electric range) will have environmental benefits no matter where you get your electricity.
No-cost driving changes
There are also many ways that cost you nothing to reduce your environmental impact form driving. Some of these will be familiar:
• Relax and enjoy the ride: Because of air drag, driving 55 mph uses 21% less fuel than driving 75 mph. Every 5 mph faster you drive, is like paying an extra $0.25/gallon.
• Straight and steady: drive at a constant rate, accelerate slowly, and do not tailgate. On highways, aggressive driving lowers efficiency as much as 33%.
• Charge! Accelerate before a hill rather than on it.
• Roll hard: inflate all tires to the maximum recommended limit.
• Clear out excess items from your trunk. Removing 100 pounds increases efficiency 2%.
If you have the convenience of mass transit, whether bus or trains, taking them instead of driving will substantially reduce your environmental impact. Carpools are a great thing, too.
Unfortunately, reducing the carbon intensity of your air travel is an area where business solutions are limited. New technologies are sorely needed. Biofuel-powered planes are one future option but they are not in widespread use for commercial air activities and biofuels bring with them other challenges, too. Electric planes are unlikely any time soon given the weight of batteries.
Minimizing air travel through tele-conferencing is one way to reduce the impact.
If you are a captain of industry, then eschewing private planes in favor of commercial-ones will substantially reduce the carbon intensity of your trip. The emissions from a large plane are larger than from a small one but are spread across a much greater number of people. The carbon intensity of a cross-United States airplane ride on a commercial jet is the same as if you drove a Toyota Prius c by yourself that same distance (in fact, if you are on a jet with 200 or more people, flying is probably less carbon intensive).
When you’ve exhausted all your options for changes in your own lifestyle, then you can try to reduce your environmental impact through carbon allowances or carbon credits.
Carbon allowances are pollution permits. Carbon Lighthouse Association, a non-profit organization, independently governed from Carbon Lighthouse LLC (carbonlighthouse.com), competes with power plants for pollution permits and then retires those permits, unused, on your behalf. All permits are mandatory and are enforced by state governments. You can use the tool on the Carbon Lighthouse Association website to calculate your carbon footprint. Then purchase allowances on the website and balance your residual carbon footprint to become carbon-neutral.
If you would like to invest in a carbon mitigation project the non-profit Carbon Fund has a list of projects. US-based, renewable energy and methane flaring projects are among the most reliable and verifiable carbon offset projects.
The impacts human beings are having on the planet are difficult to overstate. The seven billion of us enjoy the fruits of industrial-age, human ingenuity through the consumption of vast amounts of fuels. While this consumption is economically sustainable for the time being, it will become increasingly less so as we further stress our environment. Little steps lead to bigger ones, and a few individuals taking action lead to larger groups joining in. We hope this post has been a helpful, no-nonsense summary of the opportunities available to you as an individual to help the planet.