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Climate and EnergyAugust/September 2006

Turning Down the Heat

The Climate-Protecting House

Last months column was about reducing the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that we produce through transportation, about 60% of the emissions of a typical Sonoma County household. The other 40% come from running the house itself.

Ideally we would have houses that could produce, without using fossil fuels, all of the energy they consume - like the Canadian Zero Net Energy Home or the German passivhaus. Such houses start by minimizing energy use through efficiency and good design.

To minimize energy for space heating and cooling a house needs to be well insulated and airtight. Extra roof insulation is the easiest and cheapest step to take to improve an existing house and it is beneficial in all seasons - keeping the house cool in summer and warm in winter. Double glazed windows make a big difference as well, cutting down on air leakage in winter, noise, and heat transfer through windows.

Air conditioning takes a huge amount of electricity, as we know from now regular summer blackout warnings. Luckily though, Sonoma County has a coastal climate. If your house is well-insulated and reasonably airtight, shut the windows in the morning when the house is cool and it will stay that way until evening without running an air conditioner.

Electricity in California is generated in a number of ways. In 2005 about 45% of the state's electric power was generated using natural gas and coal and produced GHGs. There is huge potential for saving electricity at home. We should be proud that in the market-manufactured electricity crisis of 2001, California residents voluntarily reduced peak demand by about 10% and avoided blackouts - why can't we continue to do this and more?

The electricity for pumps and other equipment that the County and cities use to provide residents with clean water and to treat sewage is not itemized as such on your water bill, but it is one of the most significant of the county's energy uses. Conserving water conserves energy as well!

In fact, conserving everything helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It takes energy to produce consumer goods and it takes energy to get rid of them. Since the Sonoma County landfill closed in 2005, we have been sending our trash even further by truck to other counties. Reducing your household trash will reduce the number of truck trips.

Your house can help by being an energy producer. Solar photovoltaic cells are now a proven technology for generating GHG-emission free electricity on a household level. The California Solar Initiative, offering rebates and incentives for new solar systems through 2017, was approved by the state Assembly in June and will go to the Senate in August.

Sonoma County and its cities have set a challenging goal - more ambitious than the Kyoto protocol - of reduction of GHG emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2015. We must take on this challenge as individuals, but we need further action from our local government as well. The next step, involving citizens in creating a plan for achieving the GHG reduction target, has not yet happened. Our elected officials need to hear that we want to see progress on this plan!

What You Can Do

  • Increase your attic insulation. When you replace your roof, improve its ventilation with a ridgetop vent. Walls and floors can also be insulated.
  • Install double glazed windows. Thick curtains or air-trapping blinds can also help keep the sun out in summer and insulate the window in winter.
  • Putting your furnace on a programmable timer can make heating the house much more efficient - if you use yourself as a thermostat, there's always a time lag.
  • Plant deciduous trees on the south or west side of your house. They shade the house in summer, but drop their leaves to let the sun's warmth through in winter. Trees are also carbon 'sinks', and remove carbon dioxide from the air.
  • Use less water. Set your hot water tank to the lowest setting - this will also prevent accidental burns.
  • Buy Energy Star appliances. Energy Star is a program run by the Environmental Protection Agency, which identifies appliances that use the least energy. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs and dry laundry on a line when you can.
  • A solar water heater can be installed on the roof to preheat the water in the tank. 'Instant' hot water heaters will probably not save as much energy as keeping a well insulated water tank and preheating with solar. Real Goods, an alternative energy company in Hopland, has a website with tons of information about alternative technologies. http://www.solareco.com/index.cfm
  • Ask your City Council and the county Board of Supervisors when the GHG reduction plan will be completed!

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