***If you are not a numbers person I apologize in advance, and suggest that you don’t worry too much about the precise details and instead just try to take away the bigger picture.***
If a person wants to live more sustainably, one very important step is to take stock of your current circumstances. Putting real numbers to one’s use of energy and resources allows you to see which things really matter, where the problems are, and gives hints to the solutions. This post is an accounting of the energy consumption and associated emissions of greenhouse gases of the lifestyle lived by my family during the entire year of 2017. We have already taken a fair number of steps to minimize the impact of our lifestyle, but we still have much work left to do if we are to do our fair share to keep the world livable.
Something like 80% of the energy and resources that we each consume is connected to household goods and services, with the rest being our share of the services provided by the government. The majority of this resource use is under our direct control in our homes, our cars, our products, and our food, while the rest is only indirect; we don’t control that much about the hospitals, businesses, or restaurants that we frequent. For the purposes of figuring out what the average person can do about sustainability, it makes sense to separate out those things that are under our direct control from those that are not. It isn’t that we can’t have an impact on government or industry, it is simply that the advocacy related to voting, lobbying, or boycotting organizations to change their policies and behavior is very different from the decisions we make about heating our homes and which cars to buy.
For the purposes of accounting for my own household’s energy use, I’ll stick to those things that are under our direct control, namely housing, consumer goods, personal transportation, and food, and not address those that we don’t have a lot of control over, government and services including things like hospitals and schools.
We begin this account with a table including our major sources of energy consumption in 2017, seen below. This includes my best approximation of everything that we did and its impacts. This table breaks down where and how we used energy as well as what form it took. I then include the figure that matters most for climate change, emissions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Most of these emissions are actually carbon dioxide, but also include things like nitrous oxide and methane. We’ll examine each of these energy uses in turn below (these estimates are drawn from various sources, anchored by analyses from Jones and Kammen, 2011). As you can see in the table below, our direct household activities had effective emissions of 28 tons of CO2 in 2017.
Duplex in Ottawa
I would actually much prefer to live full-time out at our farm in the hills north of Ottawa, but this would require a daily commute of an hour each way into the city for work, and schools other services are very limited out in that area. On top of that, my wife isn’t ready to be a full-time country woman. So instead, we have been renting a 3 bedroom duplex unit in the city, and then spending two or three days a week out at the farm.
Our biggest energy consumption in the duplex is natural gas, used in a forced air gas furnace and a tankless hot water heater. Natural gas is, unsurprisingly, delivered in gaseous form, so it is measured by volume; we used 1480 cubic meters of the stuff in 2017 (52,300 cubic feet if you’re in the US). Natural gas heating is currently cheaper than almost any other source of heat in much of North America including here in Ottawa. From a sustainability standpoint, it is an imperfect choice because it is a fossil fuel, but it isn’t quite as bad as other fossil fuels for emissions. Society must wean itself off of natural gas in the future, but it is a tolerable choice for the time being. At the moment, the best local choice for more sustainable residential heating may be heat pumps backed up by natural gas on the coldest days, which may be the path we take once we own a home in Ottawa.
The lion’s share of this gas is for space heating in Ottawa’s relatively cold climate. Ottawa has similar heating needs to some of the coldest areas of the continental US, very similar to Minneapolis or the colder parts of New England. The building itself is nearly 100 years old, but has been renovated and has relatively new insulation and windows. It probably has insulation and air-tightness levels of a typical 10 to 20 year old home. One big advantage is that as a duplex it shares one entire wall with an adjacent unit, which reduces heat loss for the whole building by around 25%. We keep the thermostat set a bit low in winter, around 19 Celsius ( 67 Fahrenheit), and have a smart thermostat that turns down the heat overnight. Combined, these measures probably shave another 5 to 10% off the heating loads as compared to business as usual.
We have a tankless hot water tank in this house. The benefit of tankless hot water is that one only heats up water when it is called for, and doesn’t have ‘standing losses’ when hot water in a big water tank cools between use. Having lower flow shower heads and keeping showers to a reasonable length also moderate hot water use.
We used 6635 kWh of electricity from Hydro Ottawa in 2017 in our duplex. Ontario (and neighboring Quebec) have very low CO2 emissions for their electricity since very little of their power is generated through fossil fuels. Across the river in Quebec power is almost exclusively generated by hydroelectric dams, and here on the Ontario side, in addition to significant hydropower, over half of Ontario’s electricity is generated at nuclear power plants. Nuclear power has concerns of its own, but if one takes climate change seriously it is something that should probably be included in the mix as nuclear power produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions. Our personal electricity use is fairly typical, with most of the power accounted for by the furnace fans, dehumidifier, dish and clothes washer, refrigerator, and household electronics. Our landlord did a good job of choosing high efficiency appliances.
The final energy use of our duplex is embodied energy. As discussed elsewhere on Sunshine Saved, the basic idea is that it takes a lot of energy and resources to build things and those things eventually wear out, so one can calculate how much energy is being ‘used up’ each year in deterioration and aging. There are an awful lot of parts making up a house, concrete, wood, electrical and plumbing, lots of of workers and goods transported to the site, and more. The saving grace is that houses last a long time, perhaps one hundred years on average. One can then add up all the energy that goes into building a home and divide that by the number of years it will last. Doing this, we estimate that the aging of our home accounts for the equivalent of 1 ton of CO2 emissions per year.
The house at The Farm at Manitou Bay
Our off-grid home is discussed in great detail here, and the design and building process for this house launched our work here at Sunshine Saved. This house was designed from the ground up to be efficient, both for reasons of sustainability as well as to make it much easier to take a four season home in our northern location off the grid.
Though this house has solar panels, the energetic heavy lifting is being done by propane. The biggest energy user of any home in our climate is heating, and this is the exact same time of year when days are the shortest and cloudiest. It is, at least for the time being, enormously more cost effective to have the majority of heating come from sources other than our solar panels.
Propane is used for the primary heating, domestic hot water, kitchen stove, and a backup electricity generator. In 2017, we burned 400 gallons of propane, which released 2.9 tons of CO2 in emissions. The biggest part of this was space heating. The Manitou house uses about half as much energy for heating as the duplex due to high insulation and airtightness, even though it is a slightly bigger place with much more surface area exposed to the elements.
Solar panels provide for all of the electricity loads. Sunlight as a ‘fuel’ has no emissions, but there is a quite high embodied energy for all of the solar equipment, the panels, electronics, and batteries. All of this gear requires energy to build and it has only a finite lifespan, 10 years for batteries, perhaps 15 for the electronics, and 30 for the panels themselves. I estimate that in 2017 we used 1200 kWh and had an emissions impact of .3 tons CO2e.
In the winter, we heat with our wood stove whenever we are there to tend to it. There is an ongoing debate as to whether burning wood should count as carbon neutral, and my take is that it really depends on scale. Clearcutting forests and shipping them off to be burned for electricity is clearly not carbon neutral. However, the small-scale harvest of trees that would otherwise rot on the forest floor is quite sustainable. I estimate that we have effectively zero emissions as we are selectively cutting trees within a few hundred yards of the house, those trees that are dead, dying or of otherwise low quality. CO2 is absorbed as they grow, CO2 is released when burned in our high efficiency stove. The only other inputs are less than a gallon of gasoline for my chainsaw to do the cutting for a winter’s worth of wood. The amount of wood we burn gives us about 1/4 of the home’s winter heat and produces only a few pounds of excess CO2 emissions from the gasoline.
This house is relatively similar in total size to the duplex that we rent in the city, and so we use the same estimate of its embodied energy, at 1 ton of CO2 per year. With the quality that we tried to aim for with the build, I would hope that this building will last much more than one hundred years, but only time will tell.
Car and truck
At the moment we have two vehicles, a Subaru Outback and a Ford F150. For a family trying to be as sustainable as possible, I admit that this seems a bit odd, to have two vehicles and one of them very large. We would like to reduce to one vehicle, but that has not yet become practical with the needs of a family of five, with work, errands, and a farm property to manage. All wheel drive is a necessity to access the farm during parts of the year, and is much better during the long snowy season in the city of Ottawa also. Managing a forested farm is also made much easier by the capabilities of a pickup. We keep the mileage and therefore gas consumption low, which does help some to reduce the impact of having two vehicles.
In 2017, we put about 6200 miles on the Subaru and burned 220 gallons of gasoline, and had 3400 miles on the pickup truck for an additional 200 gallons of gas. This released 4.9 tons of CO2 into the air.
Finally, there is the embodied energy in our vehicles, from all of the mining, refining, production, and assembly needed to put the cars together in the first place. One can tally up the total amount of energy, and divide it by the lifetime of the car, giving an annual emissions for having that vehicle. Our pickup is a bigger vehicle and so required more materials, and the two combined lead to an annualized production of around 1.4 tons of CO2.
The energy use of air travel is something we discussed briefly in another article comparing modes of transportation, but the takeaway is that traveling by commercial airplane is roughly as energy efficient per mile as driving a car, while air travel really racks up fuel use and emissions due to the large distances traveled. In 2017, my family of four took one trip by plane to visit family, with about 1900 miles in the round-trip flight. Our share of the jet fuel for these flights released 2 tons of CO2.
My family tries to eat well and maintain a relatively balanced and nutritious diet. With very young kids it is seldom that we eat out, but we do a lot of home cooking. Most of our calories come from the grocery store, and from conventional farming before that. We do eat food out of the garden, from local farmers, and a bit more that is hunted and fished, but these make up a very small amount of the total. So for the most part, the sorts of figures discussed on our main page on food and diet apply to my own family as well. We have already adopted the two main recommendations that are outlined there, of cutting food waste almost to zero, and reducing beef and lamb consumption down to only a few times per year. Accounting for all of the farm and commercial equipment needed to plant, harvest, process and deliver our food to us, I estimate that our food consumption accounts for 4 tons of CO2 production per year.
Other consumer goods
On top of the big items of homes and cars, we have all the other trappings of modern life, including appliances, furniture, electronics, clothing, and more. And all of this stuff has a limited lifespan, whether it be measured in days or decades. This is a lot of things to try to account for, so for the sake of simplicity I will simply assume that we buy the same amount of stuff as the average American household (see here for more data). It would be interesting to go through item by item, and that is something that we may discuss at a later date. Using average American household figures, all of the goods that we purchase per year produce emissions of about 6 tons of CO2.
Comparison to average household.
Using the average household data, we can then compare where we were for 2017 with the average American household of 2010. The table shows that our household produced about 28 tons of CO2 compared with the average US household of 42 tons. We are doing better than the average family by about a third. The key differences that allowed my family to have lower than average emissions include:
- Much lower mileage on our cars led to much lower gasoline use.
- Our homes are well insulated and have efficient appliances and use less natural gas and electricity.
- The grid electricity in Ontario has much lower emissions than most of the United States, so the impact of our electricity use is much lower.
- We eat very little beef and waste little food.
My family’s 2017 consumption was far from sustainable. We are a bit better than the average North American level, but we have plans to do much more. We have put together a five year plan for our family where we aim to reduce by half our CO2 emissions from our 2017 levels. We’re even developing a more speculative 20 year plan that would bring our family’s consumption down to truly long-term sustainable levels. This longer term plan is less certain because it depends on larger forces of technology development, future government regulation, corporate action, and more. There are actions that we can take as individuals, but that alone will not be enough.
Hopefully this sort of detailed accounting will give some better context for the big numbers that are always being thrown around in discussions of climate change and climate policy. It all comes back to the decisions that each of us make every day – the things we buy, the places we go, how we choose to live. People need to understand how the pieces fit together and what is at stake so that they can act personally and to help change society at large.