Part Two of a Series

By guest blogger, Jordan Daniels

Jordan DanielsIn my last blog post, back in September, I introduced the concept of the sustainability triangle, which relies on all three key components being present: environmental stewardship, social responsibility, as well as economic prosperity. In this post and the next one, I will apply these to the built environment, specifically existing buildings, and even more specifically, our homes.

One area that gets a lot of attention is energy, perhaps because generating energy can have a profound impact on our environment. In the US, most of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas as shown in Figure 1 below. Fossil fuel combustion produces emissions containing greenhouse gasses, which contribute to climate change.

Figure 1 – Sources of Energy in the U.S. in 2011

(ref. http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/showtext.cfm?t=ptb0102)

Sources of Energy US 2011

As commonly accepted as global warming is, I still find it helpful to explain some of the core concepts that are not widely understood by most people. These lie in the carbon cycle. For the last million years or so, the carbon cycle has been in a relatively steady state. It essentially consists of carbon compounds diffusing back and forth between the atmosphere and the ground and ocean, as shown in Figure 2 below. We humans thrive in this steady state wherein environmental conditions are more-or-less predictable.

However, with industrialization and the rapid increase in the combustion of fossil fuels extracted from the Lithosphere beneath the surface of the earth, we have disrupted this steady state by introducing more carbon-based gases into the atmosphere without equal measures to sequester them, or convert all of them back into stable solids or liquids on the surface of the earth. As the amount of carbon-based gases in the atmosphere increases, it traps more heat from the sun, thus gradually increasing the average global temperatures. This, in turn, changes the steady state we are accustomed to by creating unusual weather events, raising sea levels, and impacting plants and animal species, sometimes profoundly.

Figure 2 – The Carbon Cycle

(ref. http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/76572.html)

The Carbon Cycle

While sequestration is an important challenge that is slowly being addressed on an industrial scale, when it comes to our homes, it is much easier to help slow global warming by finding ways to emit fewer carbon-based gasses. To do this, we must understand the ways our homes produce them, which include direct production when we burn fossil fuels for heating water or air, and indirect production when local utility companies burn fossil fuels to produce the electricity we buy from them.

Now, we could completely eliminate carbon-based emissions from our homes if we immediately converted to energy systems that use only renewable sources like solar, geothermal or wind power. However, immediate conversion would not be sustainable by most households because the capital costs would be too high. We need to find a solution that supports the Economic Prosperity aspect of the sustainability triangle.

It’s much easier to include energy efficiency in the solution because efficiency upgrades are usually affordable. Here are a number of simple changes that usually require minimal financial investment:

  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents.
  • In winter, open blinds on the south-facing windows during the day to allow the sun to warm the home.  Do the opposite in the summer.  If possible, plant deciduous trees on the south side of the house for the same reason.
  • Install occupancy sensors on exterior lights to ensure they are minimized when people are not present.
  • Close window blinds at night to reduce heat loss.
  • If possible, minimize heating/cooling in unoccupied parts of the home.
  • Install weather stripping around all windows and doors that leak air.
  • Make sure to cover pools and hot tubs when not in use.
  • Use an outdoor clothesline or drying rack instead of a mechanical dryer.

In my next post I’ll discuss the importance of a performance baseline to leverage savings from energy efficiency improvements to help justify capital-intensive investments for reducing carbon-based emissions even more.

About the author: Jordan Daniels is a building performance consultant based in California.  From an early age his passion for sustainability influenced life decisions from education on throughout his career, with extensive travel along the way. More information about Mr. Daniels is available at www.linkedin.com/pub/jordan-daniels/5/944/a92

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