Friday, January 12, 2018

2017 Energy and Carbon Footprint Review

Soooo... since January seems to be the season for annual reviews, I figured I take some time to peek at my energy usage and see how it's looking.

First of all, my energy company (Xcel) offers a bill averaging service where instead of paying for your actual monthly usage, you pay an averaged amount based on you previous year's usage at the time you sign up. If your usage starts to vary wildly from the previous year, they'll adjust your monthly payment mid-year, otherwise they just adjust in on the anniversary of your sign up month.

I LOVE this service. Not only does it make it easy to budget for utilities costs, it also makes conserving energy into a fun little game. Each year as September rolls around, I start to get excited to see if I'm gonna be able to hold steady or even lower my bill. Yes, I am a total nerd.


This year I was super excited because my bill went down a bit, and my monthly energy cost (natural gas & electricity) is now only $78. Woo Hoo!

That's especially exciting since I pay a voluntary "green guilt" tax of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour on my electricity so that I can get all of it from wind power, which worked out to a total of about $73 for the year. At some point I would love to explore the option of rooftop solar, but my yard has several big trees that might make it unworkable, plus the fact that I've lost 2 roofs to hail in the 20-some-odd years I have lived here sorta makes me nervous about going that route.


Anyhow, this year I decided it might be fun to delve a little deeper into my energy usage to see if there are places I can save a little bit more, both in terms of money and environmental impact.

So, 2017 energy usage for my 900 square foot house with full basement was:

Natural Gas: 390 therms (32.5/month average)
Electricity: 4848 kWh (404/month average)

Each month Xcel sends out a cute little email that allows you to compare your usage to that of your neighbors, and mine always comes in as "better than your efficient neighbors." But I started to wonder, what exactly does that mean? And how does "better" translate in terms of environmental impact?

I know getting firm numbers on this sort of thing is sorta impossible, but I decided to explore some other options and happened upon a fairly decent carbon footprint calculator created by the folks out at Berkeley in California.



Now, I don't know if you've ever played with carbon footprint calculators, but let's just say that once you get beyond things for which you might have firm numbers - like energy use and mileage, well, the numbers start to get pretty hand wavy at best.

Nevertheless, according to this calculator, my annual carbon footprint is somewhere between 7-8 tons depending on how I answered certain questions. Seriously, it asked how much I spent per month on health care, and gave me radically different carbon numbers depending on whether I entered my insurance premium before or after the tax credit. (Waves hands wildly.) But it did say that the average one person household in my zip code with similar income is around 22 tons per year.

That's interesting, but I'm still not sure how much it tells me in terms of my own usage and how I might improve. I mean, I read another study which said that a homeless person in the US has a carbon footprint of 8.5 tons/year! So... my carbon footprint is slightly better than that of a homeless person?!?


Well anyhow, since none of that seemed terribly helpful, I decided that instead of trying to calculate my entire carbon footprint, I'd just focus on the stuff for which I had hard numbers and see what that would tell me.

Sooo... figuring that my car gets around 29 MPG and I only drove about 668 miles, that comes out to 0.3 tons of carbon emissions last year. Electricity would be the big one at 4.6 tons, but since all of my electricity came from wind power, that number went to 0. Woot Woot! $73 well spent, IMHO. So that leaves natural gas, where my emissions totaled 2.4 tons.

Looking at it that way, it's pretty clear that the biggest place I can save - at least in terms of carbon emissions, is my natural gas usage.


There are only 3 appliances in my home that use natural gas: the furnace, hot water heater, and clothes dryer.

Now, at this point I should probably mention that my home has a hybrid furnace. When I replaced the ancient furnace about 10 years ago I decided to upgrade and get whole house air conditioning as well. And since I was doing that, it made sense to pay a little bit more and get an air conditioner which could run backwards as a heat pump, because it's a significantly more efficient method of heating... at least until it gets really cold. Once the weather drops below about 40 degrees (around 4C) the heat pump has a hard time keeping up, so it switches over to the gas furnace (which is a 95% efficient model.) 

The hybrid furnace is so efficient that my energy bills stayed pretty much flat after installing it, even though I now had air conditioning. Plus, a lot of the burden for heating was switched from gas to electricity, and since that all comes from wind power, I figure that's an environmental win.

At any rate, the way the hybrid furnace ends up working is that it mostly uses the heat pump during the day and then switches over to the gas furnace at night when the temperature gets colder. So, one way to get an easy savings on natural gas is to turn the temperature down a few more degrees at night. I did have it set to 64 at night, but a few weeks ago I turned it down to 62. With an extra blanket on the bed I honestly haven't noticed any difference, so I might consider going a bit lower still. I also set it to lower the temperature an hour earlier in an effort to encourage myself to get to bed at a decent hour.


Lest you worry that my little kitties are cold at night, they each have a 4 watt heated cat bed so they can stay nice and warm.

There are plenty of other things that I might explore to save on heating costs, but these are probably topics for another post. But things I'm considering include bumping up the level of insulation in my attic, weather stripping around the attic door & insulating ceiling light fixtures, blown in wall insulation, upgrading my siding to stucco (which involves adding a layer of insulation board), cellular shades on the windows, and maybe even new windows. 

So that leaves the dryer and the hot water heater. The dryer is an easy one. I sorta got out of the habit of hanging my clothes to dry because of the carpet beetles. One way to kill the eggs and larvae is heat, so I've been using the dryer in an effort to kill off the little buggers. But since I seem to have turned the corner on that issue (knock on wood) I think it's probably safe to go back to line drying - at least for most things. I'll probably still put big things like bedding in the dryer.


Similarly, I had the hot water heater turned up to the highest setting so that I could use the hot cycle on the washer to kill beetles. But once again, there's no need for that anymore (I hope), so I've turned it down a notch or two - plus I'm going back to washing laundry in cold water.

I also bought some foam pipe insulators and covered the first few feet of pipe coming out of the hot water heater. I'd like to do more, but alas, that's as far as I can reach without ripping out the basement ceiling - which sorta seems like a bad idea.

So that leaves my Achilles heel of hot water use... bathing.


Yes folks, I am a hopeless bathtub addict. I like to soak for at least an hour until I turn into a complete prune. It is one of my true vices, and I am loath to give it up, especially in the winter time. But, since I did finally get the diverter valve fixed so I now have the option of taking a shower, I do think that some of my hot water use will go down there too - especially in the warmer months of the year.

So that's my plan for the moment. I'm hopeful that it will pay dividends both in terms of my natural gas bill and my carbon footprint - all without sacrificing anything in terms of comfort or convenience.

Have any of you ever calculated your carbon footprint or energy usage? I'm curious to hear how our numbers compare.


Monday, January 8, 2018

The Annual Odometer Reset

Alrighty! 2017 is done, and the numbers are in:


In general I'm very happy with these numbers. I was totally stoked to get over 3000 miles on my bike - mostly I credit the good weather, especially the crazy warm & dry fall we had last year. So that's 591 miles more than I rode in 2016. Yay!!

The car numbers... well, while 668 miles is pretty minimal, it is 130.2 miles more than I drove in 2016. I think I can safely blame that on my many trips to various home improvement stores with all of my remodeling projects. So, while I'd love for my driving miles to go down every year - I think as long as I stay under 1000 miles per year, I'm happy.



So as I'm writing this, I'm listening to a podcast by climate scientist Kevin Anderson. He argues that in order to stave off catastrophic climate change, we will need massive changes - both technologically and societally. He thinks that when it comes to reducing personal emissions, the key thing is to do it publicly. In other words, the value of taking steps to lower one's carbon footprint is not so much the tiny amount of carbon emissions that one person can save, rather it's serving as an example to one's peers - because it's only through collective action that we'll solve this problem.

So in that spirit, I figured I'd blather a bit about my general philosophy when it comes to transportation. I want to be clear that my point here is not to criticize anyone whose choices are different from my own. We all have different realities and priorities. I'm simply trying to show you what works for me. And if I'm being perfectly honest, my motivation for staying out of my car has very little to do with trying to reduce my carbon footprint, and everything to do with trying to improve my quality of life.


Commuting

The average American spends over 100 hours per year commuting. Good Lord! And there are over 3 million Americans who's daily commute is over 50 miles each direction! Can you imagine? Seriously, the mere idea of having to dedicate that much of my life just getting to and from a job sorta makes me want to stick an ice pick in my temple.

I wrote a post detailing many of my feelings about commuting a while back, so I won't bother to repeat it all, but suffice it to say, I am a firm believer that it is well worth the effort to arrange your life so that you have the smallest possible commute. Commuting is a non-issue for me these days since what work I do, I do from home. But even before I quit my job, my commute was only 5 miles. That wasn't an accident. When I bought my house, one of the things that was very important to me was that it be relatively close to where I worked.

Now, I'd like to claim that this decision was an altruistic one made out of concern for the environment, but the truth is that I just plain hate being stuck behind the wheel of a car.


Shopping

I try to shop as close to home as possible. I am lucky. Even though my house only gets a walkability score of 55, I have the following resources all under a mile from my doorstep: 2 grocery stores, 1 laundromat, 1 post office, 1 dollar store, 1 convenience store, 1 veterinarian, 1 bakery, 2 liquor stores, 3 gas stations, about a dozen bars and restaurants, and a bunch of other things I've never visited like clothing boutiques and pawn shops. If I expand that radius to about 3 miles, those resources expand dramatically.


So the vast majority of my shopping chores can be accomplished very close to home. And once again, while I'd like to say that the decision to patronize the stores in my immediate neighborhood is done out of altruistic concern for the environment, the truth is a lot more like enlightened self interest.

The thing is, I really LIKE having two grocery stores a few blocks from home, and I want them to stay in business. So while it's sometimes tempting to hop in the car and drive a few miles to a bigger, more modern store that might have a slightly bigger selection, ultimately, I'd rather patronize the ones in my immediate neighborhood, even if it means I can't get some of the schmancy treats I'd like to have. Plus, when I do make a trip to a different store to get something special... it's just that: special.

There are, of course, some things that can't be purchased close to home, and for this I try to either group my purchases so I can make say one trip to the bike store rather than many. Failing that, I order online. Now I know there are people who claim online shopping is horrible for the environment, but I think the devil's in the details on that one. On the one hand, I can have something delivered... on a truck... which will be winding its way through the neighborhood making a bunch of other deliveries anyhow or, I can spend an hour in my car driving across town to get the same item... well, I think that's a toss up at best in terms of which is worse.




Travel and Entertainment

I once read that back in the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived their entire lives within about 100 miles from where they were born. That's pretty unfathomable by today's standards, but the idea of living one's whole life in a relatively small geographic area really resonated with me. It makes me think of my grandmother, who, though she was definitely a 20th century gal, lived her entire life in what, by today's standards, would be considered a pretty small area.


Grandma was born in southern Colorado, grew up in a mining town in the mountains, followed various husbands (she had 3 of them) to Denver, and several towns in both northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. Finally she came back to Denver where she lived the rest of her life. While I'm quite sure there were small vacations throughout her life that I never heard about, the big one was when she was in her 70s. My dad sent her and her best friend on a Caribbean cruise - and I never saw anybody so happy and excited about anything in my entire life. She literally danced around the Christmas tree hooting and howling when Dad gave her the tickets that year. It was just what I think a vacation like that really should be - a BIG, special deal.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people should try to live like it's the 19th century, or even necessarily like my grandmother did. But I do find the whole idea of staying relatively put in a geographic sense to be wonderfully grounding. My house is only about 3 miles from the one I grew up in, and the older I get, the more I appreciate having a real sense of place in my life.


So here's a little secret - I haven't been  on a plane since 1993. Come to think of it, that was also the last time I made it outside of the state of Colorado! And you know what - I don't feel like I'm missing one tiny little thing.

Now, I'm not knocking travel - I did plenty of it in my younger days. I've traveled all across the US, been to New Zealand, Hawaii, Mexico, and through numerous countries in Europe & Scandinavia. But here's the thing, when it comes right down to it, a place is just a place. It's not that I don't have an appreciation for different cultures, but the thing is, when you visit a place as a tourist, you seldom get a chance to experience much about the culture you are visiting.

And while there are certainly days in the middle of winter when I think it would be wonderful to be laying on a beach in Hawaii, the reality is that in order to get to that beach, I would first have to find someone to take care of my house & cats, deal with traffic, crowds and airport hassles, then climb inside of a tin can with wings and deal with hours and hours of motion sickness and the probably migraine that would follow. And once I got there, every meal would be sort of like a dance with death as I struggled to communicate my many food allergies to some cook who  may or may not "get it."


So once again, I'm not being altruistic here, it's more like I've crafted a life that I have no need or desire to "get away from." And, that being the case, not having to deal with the hassles of travel is a monumental relief.

Now, CatMan and I do have some friends down in Manitou Springs - which is a lovely little town on the edge of the mountains outside of Colorado Springs, so we make the 150 mile round trip about once or twice per year. CatMan drives on those trips so it isn't reflected in my car mileage.

Plus, I think that my biking habit really fills the role of getting out and about for me.


For some reason, there is something infinitely more special about riding your bike to a beautiful place, than simply getting in a car and driving there.

Red Rocks Park - Photo taken on a bike ride last summer


Anyhooos.... those are my thoughts about driving, cars and travel. I'd love to hear what you think. Do you drive a lot? Does anybody out there hate it as much as I do?







Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Impromptu Feast

So... the past week or so I've had a really bad migraine that I just couldn't shake. The thing about migraines - at least for me - is that it's not just a matter of pain, there's a whole syndrome that goes with it, which includes a low level brain fog.


Anyhoo... I ran out of my favorite German pumpernickel bread, and rather than risk my life and that of others by trying to get behind the wheel of a car (closest store that carries it is out of easy biking or walking distance - plus... burrrr!) Well, I was pretty sure there was a "reserve loaf" buried somewhere in the depths of the chest freezer, so I decided to go freezer diving.

It seemed like a good idea at the time... really it did. I found the pumpernickel, and while I was at it I did a little quickie inventory and reorganization. My organizational system for the freezer involves grouping like items into grocery bags... one bag for cheese & dairy, one for meats & meatless patties, one for flours, meals & breads, and one for frozen fruits & veggies.

You know, it was amazing how much more room there was after a quick little reorganization. I was honestly quite pleased with my little self as I went back upstairs to defrost and enjoy my pumpernickel.



But then... the next morning when I went downstairs to clean the litter boxes, there was this bag sitting in the middle of the floor next to the freezer. "That's odd..." I thought to myself. Then the feeling of dread set in.

Yup... sure enough, in my migraine induced brain fog, I had somehow left one of the bags out of the freezer!



I held my breath hoping against hope that it would be the bread bag... but no, it was the fruits & veggies. Fortunately, for some unknown reason there was an ice pack in the bag, and since it stays pretty cool down in the basement anyhow, things weren't entirely melted.

But... even though all of the stuff was still good and clearly edible, it was a bit soft and mushy, and putting it back in the freezer would have been a bad idea.



Soooo.... Cue the New Year's Eve Cook-a-thon!



First I made roasted cauliflower



Then green bean casserole



Then since I already had some chicken thighs defrosted in the fridge, I tabled my original plans, and went for a roasted chicken with veggies to use up the rest of the veggies.



That left 2 big bags of frozen fruit... which made a decent (if a bit soggy) fruit salad.



And finally, a pile of frozen garden tomatoes & basil - which became a pesto-ish sauce.



Not a bad save if I do say so myself.


I think I've got enough leftovers so I won't have to cook for a while, plus it was sorta nice to have the oven running for a few hours on such a cold day!

So I guess the moral of the story is: Don't go freezer diving for pumpernickel when you're not fully present!


Anyhow... I hope you all had a safe and happy New Year's Eve!