How far can a homeowner, a maker, a concerned citizen go to decarbonizing their life? Quite far!
Most climate policy sounds abstract — large-scale decisions made by people you don’t know. Forget that. Here’s how to start decarbonizing your own world, from your kitchen table outward, without invoking fanciful technology that doesn’t exist yet. You can see for yourself right now what solving climate change successfully looks like.
Of course we can’t get to a zero carbon world purely by making personal consumer decisions — we critically need government and we need an enlightened industry. But the easiest emissions to eliminate are those you directly control as a consumer: the gasoline you pour into your tank, natural gas you burn in your furnace and stovetop, the fossil fuels burned by utilities to feed your electricity.
You can broadly outline the big carbon-spewing items in your life as your transportation, your heating, your electricity, your food, your stuff, and your services (including government). Here, then, are the energy and carbon consumptions and productions you can personally affect from your kitchen table (in rough order of climate impact):
- Electrify your vehicles and transportation
- Electrify your heating and hot water
- Produce your electricity locally, or buy from renewable sources
- Eat less meat and less refrigerated food
- Buy less stuff, make it better, maintain it and make it last longer
- Decarbonize services: government, healthcare, schools, etc.
These first three things I like to think of as 21st century infrastructure. If you do just these three, you solve half of your decarbonizing problem in decisions that last for decades. You don’t need to be mired in day-to-day consumer guilt because you’ve invested in long-term solutions to your carbon shadow. Succinctly:
- Buy, build, or rent electric vehicles to replace your gas guzzlers
- Install heat pumps for home and water heating, and an induction range
- Install solar on your roof, or buy community renewables if you can’t.
As much as we might hope that the future is here and you could just run out and buy those three things, it’s not quite as true as we’d like. Let’s dive to the next level of detail, where makers will see not only an opportunity to decarbonize their own lives, but also the potential to design and invent new solutions that lower the cost, broaden the appeal, ease the installation, and make the technology more locally relevant.
1. Electrify your ride(s)
Electric cars and plug-in hybrids — You can buy a Tesla (above ), Jaguar, BMW, or Bollinger at the top end of town, but right now the more affordable options are Chevy Bolts (below), Fiat 500s, and Hyundai Konas, all of which are fabulous cars.
If you absolutely can’t bear the range anxiety, get a plug-in hybrid: try the Prius, the Chevy Volt, or the soccer-van-du-jour, the Chrysler Pacifica. Every year sees many more options arrive on the EV scene, so if what you want doesn’t exist, hold out by maintaining your current vehicle until it does. Whatever you do, don’t buy a new car with an internal combustion engine — that sends the wrong message to everyone.
There are still ample opportunities to be early in electric boats, electric aircraft, and electric RVs to fully decarbonize your transportation fleet, but remember to prioritize electrifying your daily driver, as that’s the vehicle that racks up the miles and the carbon.
EV conversions — For the more adventurous, consider electrifying your own classic. Kits for older light cars like the VW Beetle are available, as are services. There are murmurs of a drop-in muscle car “electric small block” motor. Batteries are the piece that’s expensive, and motor controls are the bit that’s frustrating (and potentially dangerous), but there are many online communities of enthusiasts to join if you want to build an electric hot rod. And there are auction sites where you can pick up a crashed EV and use the parts to do a drivetrain conversion.
Electric bikes, motorcycles, scooters — If you rightly think that roads and car culture are causing harm far beyond merely the climate problem, then choose electrified public transport or electric bikes or motorcycles.
Electrifying a vintage motorcycle is a comparatively easy project if all you want is to toodle around town at 35mph. Electrifying an old moped or a Vespa scooter is a riot, and can be achieved for a few thousand dollars. There’s now a profusion of electric bikes on the market, and some great kits for retrofitting an older bike (try converting your own bike on page 64 of Make: Magazine Volume 72).
As noted before, the cost of an electrified vehicle project is dominated by the battery. Commercially they can be obtained for $250–$500 per kWh. Car-sized things will need 300–500Wh per mile of range; motorcycle-sized things 60–100Wh/mile; motor scooter-sized 40–80Wh/mile, and e-bikes 20–40Wh/mile. Choose the range you need, multiply by the battery cost, and roughly double it to estimate the cost of a conversion.
One area where makers could have an impact is in EV control electronics and components. Open source projects like the (quite incredible) VESC (Vedder ESC) motor controller have greatly improved electric skateboards and scooters. Similar projects in battery management systems, displays and UIs, throttles and brakes, and motors could have a big impact on the small vehicle front.
2. Electrify all the heat
Due to the genius of the fossil fuel industry marketing methane as “natural gas,” and trumpeting that, per unit of energy, natural gas emits less carbon than coal or oil, the carbon being emitted from our homes and buildings has gone untargeted.
To hit a good climate target under 2°C warming we no longer can wait until we’ve decommissioned all the coal plants before we decommission the natural gas heating systems that dominate the built environment. People used to say natural gas was a “bridge” fuel to the decarbonized future. Well, we burned all those bridges … with natural gas.
There are probably three or four things that use natural gas in your home: the furnace (main offender), the stovetop and oven, the water heater, and the clothes dryer. All four of these need to be upgraded, or replaced. Unless you’re building a swanky new “Passivhaus” that needs no heating at all, this looks like a retrofit. Realistically this means heat pumps for your furnace heat and water heater, an electric clothes dryer that’s used sparingly, and an induction range for cooking.
Because of the variety and ages of homes, infrastructure, and local laws, decarbonizing our buildings presents a bewildering array of options and corner cases. I’ll talk about the “average” path to getting there, but one reason heat appliances are so ripe for maker innovation is that there are many paths. Maybe you live off-grid near a pig farm with methane capture, or a source of wood pellets and walnut shells — you could be doing a local heating fuel economy. By solving a problem in your local community, you’re probably coming up with a solution for millions globally.
Hot water heater — The heat pump hot water heater is a drop-in replacement. Rheem and others make them. It makes a little more noise than traditional heaters, so where it’s placed is important.
You can increase its efficiency with more insulation and you could figure out ways to use it to load-shift your house (set it so it only charges when your solar is producing, for example). For the more ambitious: figure out how to lower the fan noise.
Heat pump / furnace /
HVAC — The heat pump heating system retrofit is more complicated. Besides the air/ground choice (see “About Heat Pumps” page 20), there are decisions to make: Retrofit the existing forced-air furnace system with all its ductwork? Or replace the entire system with warm water pipes (hydronics) under your floorboards? Hydronic systems are quieter, and give your home better air quality and better comfort. They cost $8–$20 per square foot to install depending on how you do it and whether you do it yourself. This is then connected to your air or ground source heat pump. Hopefully those heat pumps are connected to solar on your roof or community based renewables.
If you can’t do hydronic, you can connect the heat pump to a heat exchanger (air handler) so that you can utilize the existing heat ducts.
You might have steam heat or city heat. If city heat, lobby the city to decarbonize the steam source. If it’s a boiler in your basement, replace that boiler with a heat pump.
Electric dryer — There’s a lot of water in wet clothes. It’s hard to get out because all those fibers have enormous surface area. Gas dryers use a huge amount of heat to boil the water off. Electric dryers do the same. They’re probably the single biggest load in your house and might even have a special 220V connection.
People are experimenting with ultrasonic and microwave and other kinds of dryers, and you should too — this is a difficult problem to solve. The best solution, of course, is hanging the clothes out to dry. Your clothes will smell and feel better. Maybe a robotic clothesline hanging machine is your next automation project? Minimally, let’s program dryers to align their high loads with times of day when solar generation is high.
Electric oven and stove — Cooking with gas is cultural: we’ve been told it’s better. But induction ranges, electric steam ovens, and even hot pots and sous-vide machines are electric options that enable new, more, and better cooking practices. Electronics give us higher fidelity control over the cookware — if you believe computation and controls can improve anything, then obviously this is the path to fancier, better cooking. Get to the kitchen and run some control experiments! Write a cookbook for electric cooking.
With every passing year we learn more about the effects of breathing combusted fossil fuels, and numerous studies now associate exposure to gas cooking with respiratory issues. Electrifying your kitchen will probably improve your health.
3. Put solar on the roof
If every home in America had solar to maximum capacity on its roof, that would supply ¼ to ½ of our total energy supply. (If we don’t cover our roofs we’ll have to cover a lot more fragile ecosystems.) If you add in other structures we’ve already built — buildings, roads, parking lots and garages — we have enough area to produce more energy than we need.
It makes sense to produce energy locally to minimize transmission and distribution costs and losses. The average cost of transmission and distribution of electricity is close to 8¢/kWh. Local generation has a huge advantage.
The problem is that solar on roofs in America is expensive. The reason? Bureaucracy. Land of the free, my ass. Somehow Australians and Mexicans and Southeast Asians can install solar for $1–$1.20 per watt, but in the U.S. it’s $2.80–$3.20. That’s because of liability laws and the cost structures of contracting, and permitting and inspection and union requirements and local building codes — all these “soft costs.” The actual modules only cost $0.40 per watt! If we could install them for a fraction more, then everyone would be paying just 3¢–4¢/kWh for electricity.
I think the most noble act of civil disobedience in modern America is to figure out how to install solar on your roof in a way that makes mockery of this situation. Go to it, my friends, innovate not only the installation methods, but also the loopholes that will stop your local officials from preventing your neighbors from decarbonizing!
People complain that modules bolted on the roof look ugly — fix it and design a better solution. There are various efforts in solar tiles, but no one has nailed an easy, robust roofing solution yet — it’s a giant market for the maker’s taking.
WHAT IF YOU AREN’T A HOMEOWNER?
I get this question a lot. Millennials don’t own and think they never will. I still don’t know the answer, but you can begin by badgering your landlord, and you can work to change local regulations such that landlords have to prioritize these things.
4. 5. 6. Food, stuff, and services
Indirectly we make plenty more carbon emissions — embedded in the food we eat, the products we buy, and the services we use, including the government that our taxes pay for. But these are harder to quantify. Who made that food or that clothing, how, and using what energy sources?
Nevertheless, there’s plenty more you can do. The other decisions in your home:
Insulate and seal — Homes lose a lot of their heat or cool because of air intrusion (gaps under doors and windows) and insufficient insulation of roofs, walls, and windows. Buy, rent, or borrow an infrared camera and take a nighttime walk to find out where the cold or hot air is getting in, and where the insulation can be improved.
Eat better — More than 10% of global emissions are from agriculture, and a good fraction of that is because of our cows, pigs, and sheep. Changing your diet at home is something you can easily do to make a big difference. Becoming vegetarian overnight is culturally and practically unlikely, but eating meat in moderation and not every day is good for your body and for the Amazon.
Repair more — Highly under-appreciated fact: Around 10% of American emissions are carbon embodied in products we import from other countries. Another 20% of our emissions come from industrial production and shipping of our crap here in the U.S. The simplest way to reduce this is to make things last longer. If you can make your computer or bike last twice as long, it’ll use half the carbon it might have otherwise.
Makers have fought back on the right to repair. We need to keep fighting back with a culture that appreciates repairing and patching and making our things last longer. The side effect is that we’ll be able to own things that are more beautiful that we have a better connection to.
About Heat Pumps
A heat pump works by taking a small amount of heat from a large amount of fluid and turning it into a large amount of heat for a smaller amount of fluid. Some describe it as an air conditioner running backwards.
There are two types of heat pump: ground- or earth-source, and air-source. Heat pumps are most efficient with a low lift, which is the difference between the temperature you want in your house (say, 72°F) and the temperature of your source.
Ground-source pumps use the earth as a reference temperature, which is smart because 4–5 feet below ground everywhere in the continental U.S. it’s a pretty constant 55°F–60°F all year round.
Air-source heat pumps use the external air. They’re getting much more efficient, but their efficiency drops when the outside air temperature gets really low.
Air source is easier to install, potentially less efficient, and noisier because more fans and fluids. Ground source requires digging or drilling a big heat exchanger into the ground; it’s the ultimate system but isn’t yet cheap. Invent a robot that can autonomously drill ground loops under houses and you will be richer than Elon Musk.