Feeling helpless to do anything about global warming? Find out how one family cut their own personal greenhouse- gas emissions by 65 percent-- and how you can do the same.
Three years ago climatologist Jonathan Foley and his wife, Andrea, lived the American dream: a five-bedroom house on a large double lot, a young daughter, two dogs, two cars, and two jobs in the city. Every day they commuted to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she worked in the biochemistry department and he researched how humans alter the global climate. One big way, he knew, was by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
Admittedly, the Foleys weren't energy gluttons, but neither were they the most frugal energy consumers ever. The three family members used some 550 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a month (the U.S. average is about 1,000), burned more than 1,500 therms of natural gas a year to heat their house and water (the Wisconsin average is about 1,000), and drove about 35,000 miles per year (the U.S. average is roughly 11,300 miles per car). Foley calculated the family's direct emissions of carbon dioxide at 42,000 pounds per year--slightly less than average for two adults in the United States. At the time, recalls Foley, "Our house was bigger than we needed, and my wife and I were each driving our cars 60 miles a day." The soft-spoken, boyish-looking 32-year-old seems almost aghast now at his family's lavish consumption of energy.
Foley doesn't remember when the idea first occurred to him; he calls it a gradual process. But at some point--perhaps it was during his 30-mile commute into town, or while mowing his 14,000-square-foot suburban lawn--it dawned on him that his family's excessive use of fossil fuels was partly responsible for the climate change he studied. To Foley, it was already a scientifically proven fact that greenhouse gases--especially emissions from the burning of fossil fuels--were accumulating in the atmosphere and altering the earth's climate. His examination of his family's role in the process was a turning point. "Am I willing to put my money where my mouth is?" Foley asked himself. If not, he figured, he had no business telling others to do their part.
Most of the Foleys' neighbors would say that if there's one thing mere mortals can't control, it's the weather. But Foley says that's not necessarily true, at least not when we look at the big picture. He says our lifestyle choices can and do influence the weather.
As an expert on the human influence on climate and the environment, Foley ought to know. Working from the 13th floor of the University of Wisconsin meteorology building, he designs computer models that predict how the world's climate and ecosystems will respond to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The young professor is a rising star of climatological research, having won the National Science Foundation Career Development Award in 1995 and the Presidential Early Career Award from NASA in 1997. "Jon is widely admired and respected by the best scientists," says Jane Lubchenco, a zoologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. "His models and analyses are innovative and credible. He is tackling some of the toughest issues of climate change."
Foley led the team that developed the Integrated Biosphere Simulator--the first computer model to incorporate the effects of biological systems on climate. His research has contributed to an understanding of the interactions among humans, the earth's atmosphere, and the global ecosystem as a whole. He and his team study how land-use practices can alter ecosystems--which, in turn, alter the atmosphere. For example, a pasture generally does not recirculate as much water through the atmosphere as a forest, so replacing the forest with pasture would lead to a drier climate.
It's not surprising that Foley, who says Star Trek and Carl Sagan were powerful influences on him as a kid, became a student of Planet Earth. "I've always been interested in other planets and whether life could exist on them or not. So I set about looking at atmospheres on other planets, and it dawned on me that I was living on the most interesting planet."
Studying the connection between human actions and climate helped Foley see the light. In late 1998 he and Andrea made what he calls a new-millennium resolution: to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent.
Two years later the Foleys agree to show me what they've done to achieve their goal.
The first step had been to part with their large house in a suburban village and move to a smaller house in Madison, near the shores of Lake Monona. I expect that their new living quarters will be sparse, efficient, and chilly, in keeping with their resolution. When the front door of the white-shuttered brick colonial opens and I catch a glimpse of a plush living room beyond the foyer, I wonder if I've mistakenly knocked on the door of a neighborhood bed-and-breakfast. But no, this is the place. Foley greets me at the door, his three-year-old daughter, Hannah, at his feet. Foley is sporting a button-down oxford shirt and khakis. A quick glance at the young professor, with a head of sandy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, brings to mind the curious science student he once was.
Behind him, pillowed sofas and antique tables are carefully arranged across dark wood floors softened with plush oriental rugs. Classical music plays at a low volume as a strong winter sun shines through the many tall windows. This is not at all what I was expecting. "It's not a house of denial," says Foley. And yet, he explains, this warm, cozy abode consumes a fraction of the fossil fuel used by neighboring homes.
Hannah spins and tangles herself in her father's legs as he gives me a tour of their home. Along the way, he points out the energy-saving features--most of which are not obvious to the casual eye.
We start in the kitchen, which is lit, like the rest of the house, with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Thanks to recent improvements in the technology, says Foley, some bulbs (those with a lower "color temperature" rating) now give off a more pleasant spectrum of light and can be used with dimmer switches. Compact fluorescents use 75 percent less energy than standard bulbs; where electricity is produced from coal--i.e., in most of the nation--a single compact fluorescent bulb cuts carbon dioxide emissions by about 1,300 pounds over its 10-year lifetime.
Before us stands a new Amana refrigerator. The freezer section, Foley points out, is below the refrigeration compartment. "Why put the motor on the bottom, where it heats everything up?" he asks rhetorically. Since cold air sinks and hot air rises, explains Foley, it makes sense to put the coldest section on the bottom and the motor on top. That way the motor can give off excess heat without warming the fridge itself. Although many refrigerators are energy hogs, side-by-side refrigerator-freezer combinations--with their large freezer sections--are the worst, sometimes consuming more than 1,200 kWh a year. This model uses only 537 kWh, which has earned it an Energy Star label for highly efficient appliances from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
On the other side of the kitchen sits a German-engineered Bosch dishwasher that uses 4.8 to 7.2 gallons of hot water in a cycle, depending on the size of the load--compared with 15 for an ordinary dishwasher. Bosch and other Energy Star dishwashers use more efficient technologies for the primary wash cycle and use less hot water to clean. In addition, like many new dishwashers, the Bosch has an air-dry cycle that recirculates residual hot air, adding to the energy savings.
In the basement, Foley shows me a super-efficient Carrier furnace equipped with a variable-speed fan. "So if only a little heating is needed, the motor doesn't have to run as much," he explains. The variable-speed motor uses only one-eighth the electricity of the more common single-speed motor.
Happily for the Foleys, their new home had already been outfitted with four solar panels to help heat its water. In Wisconsin's northern climate, the panels aren't able to supply all the hot water needed, but they meet two-thirds to three-quarters of the family's needs. "I love going into the basement on a sunny day in January and seeing the water preheated to 110 degrees by the sun," says Foley. In the summer the family is able to get by without using its natural-gas water heater at all.
In another corner of the basement sits one of the most efficient washing machines available: a front-loading Frigidaire Gallery. It uses 2 gallons of hot water per load, versus 20 gallons for a traditional top-loading machine. The Foleys turn to drying racks whenever possible, which conserves more energy than even their efficient, gas-powered clothes dryer.
I can't help but wonder how much the Foleys spent on all these appliances, but Foley explains that they didn't do it all at once. He and Andrea set aside a portion of their wages each month. When they have enough money, they make whatever improvement is next on their list. The couple spent $800 on the washing machine and dryer, another $800 on the refrigerator, and $4,800 on the furnace and a new central air-conditioning unit--a Carrier model with a seasonal energy-efficiency rating of 14 out of 15, versus a rating of 5 for the old unit.
Back upstairs, Foley takes me into the master bedroom and gestures at the ceiling. It's the first time I notice that all the bedrooms have ceiling fans. The fans reduce the need for air-conditioning by blowing air across the skin, evaporating moisture, and thus cooling the body. Even Hannah's night-light hasn't escaped an energy scrimp's scrutiny: It's a super-efficient, blue-glowing electroluminescent light, using a mere 0.04 watts--compared with 4 watts for a typical night-light. That may not sound like much, but those 4 watts of power would light 100 of Hannah's ultra-efficient blue beacons. "Jon and I grew up during the energy crisis of the early '70s," says Andrea Foley. "I've always tried to think about wastage and minimize it. I hope this has the same effect on Hannah someday."
In addition to cutting down on the amount of energy going into the house, the family also worked to make sure that what energy they did use wasn't going right back out. They patched cracks around doors and windows with rope caulk and weather-stripping. They insulated the attic. Fortunately, the previous owners had installed double-paned "low-e" (low-emittance) windows, which are filled with argon gas and coated with an invisible layer of metallic oxide or silver. This allows light energy in and prevents the escape of radiant heat, keeping the house both bright and warm. On cold winter evenings, says Foley, "we have insulated blinds that we pull down over the windows," as a sort of quilt to keep the cold out and the warmth in.
The family's emissions-saving techniques extend even to the outside of their home. Expecting a broad lawn, I find instead raised-bed gardens filled with prairie plants and perennials, now dormant for the winter. There's none of your ordinary turf grass here--just flowers, a small salad garden, and fruit trees. "We don't need a big yard," says Foley, noting that just down the street is a neighborhood park for an evening stroll or playtime with Hannah. The Foleys were able to give away their gas-powered lawn mower, trimming 80 pounds of CO2 emissions a year. What's more, the landscape outside their home attracts birds and insects--not to mention the human eye.
Perhaps the crowning stroke is that the Foleys' electricity is virtually emission-free. When the local utility announced a new wind farm, from which residents could purchase energy at a premium of 3 cents per kWh (about $7 a month), Foley jumped at the chance. Since wind energy doesn't involve the burning of fossil fuels, he explains, even the little electricity his family uses--less than half that used by a typical Wisconsin family--is produced without adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
The biggest savings of all came from replacing their two cars with a hybrid electric vehicle, a Toyota Prius. Says Foley, "The Prius reduces tailpipe emissions by about 90 percent compared with other cars on the road. In terms of CO2 and gas consumption, it's also quite good: It gets about 50 miles per gallon on the highway and in the city. Because we do mostly city driving--when we drive at all--this cut our car-related CO2 emissions roughly in half. Our previous car got about 25 miles per gallon in the city." They get by with one car thanks to their new location: Both Jon and Andrea often take the bus or bicycle to work. Cutting down on their commute has had the added benefit of saving time, says Foley, noting that he and his wife formerly spent about an hour and a half a day in the car.
Today, two years after declaring their energy resolu-tion, the Foleys can celebrate success. In fact, they exceeded their original goal, managing to chop their annual carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds, to about 15,000 pounds. They cut their energy use in all categories: electricity from 550 to 295 kWh per month, natural gas from 1,500 to 900 therms per year, miles driven from 35,000 to 10,000 a year. And it didn't involve any bloodletting, says Foley.
He knows that the emissions of one family are a mere drop in the ocean of atmospheric pollution. But he says, "I believe in the power of good examples." He hopes that by modeling energy efficiency while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, his family will see its actions ripple through the lives of students, neighbors, and colleagues. Indeed, it's the responsibility of a scientist to act on the results of his or her research, argues Foley. "We can't hide out in an ivory tower anymore," he says.
Their example is already paying off. Neighbor and county supervisor Andy Olsen says that Foley inspired him to switch his home lighting to compact fluorescents. "Jon told me where I could purchase them, and I changed the bulbs in my house fixtures and gave bulbs as Christmas gifts to my family and a lot of friends."
Foley says that as a scientist, he asks a simple research question: How are we doing in terms of managing this planet? At present, he believes, "We're monkeying around with the global climate in ways we just don't understand." What the results of the experiment will be, even climatologists can't tell.
But Foley thinks we should err on the side of caution. "Are we willing to place a burden on future generations by wastefully consuming cheap energy now?" he asks. "We know that we have to move away from fossil fuels--they will run out eventually." If we anticipate that economic shift, we'll save energy and money. Besides, he argues, taking steps to save energy will only benefit the economy, by increasing efficiency. "This is the biggest business opportunity ever," says Foley. "And it's win-win. Energy conservation is a good thing to do, no matter what you think about the fact of global warming."
Environmental journalist Brian Lavendel lives near the Foleys in Madison, Wisconsin. He bicycles whenever possible, leaving his ancient, combustion-engine Toyota in the driveway.
How to Ditch your Auto
Now, the decision seems obvious. But last year Reid Kells wasn't sure if should sell his 1980 Toyota Corolla. He was weary of paying for the insurance and upkeep. And he seldom drove the car, since he trains to work, his girlfriend has a new car, and their Portland, Oregon, apartment is near most amenities. Yet the 28-year-old Intel engineer hesitated to part with the mobility that his old beater offered him.
Then Kells learned how to have a car without owning it. He joined CarSharing Portland (CSP), a for-profit group that gave him the keys to a new Dodge Neon parked in his neighborhood and to other vehicles nearby. Now he can run errands or take trips that were tougher by bus, bike, or his girlfriend's car. "I thought I needed a car more than I do," says Kells. "What [this did] was wean me from a second vehicle."
CarSharing Portland owns a fleet of 25 vehicles--21 compact sedans, 2 hybrid electric cars, a minivan, and a pickup. To use them, its 400-plus members pay a $100 annual membership fee and a $250 security deposit, plus $2 per hour and 40¢ per mile. Members reserve a vehicle by calling an automated phone system, and they track mileage by filling out logs.
Kells uses CSP's Toyota Tacoma pickup to haul leaves and a Dodge Neon for special outings. Other members use the cars for road trips or taking pets to the vet. "The ideal car-sharing candidate is someone who doesn't need a car every day, or who has a car that is driven less than 7,500 miles per year," says CSP president David Brook.
Started in 1998, CarSharing Portland is modeled after a program that began in Switzerland and spread across Europe. Similar programs have gotten in gear in Seattle, Boston, and Traverse City, Michigan; others are in the works.
Driving 5,000 to 7,500 miles a year through CarSharing Portland costs $2,900 to $4,350; driving your own car the same distance costs $4,673 to $4,903. Other payoffs include reduced congestion, pollution (because of reduced driving), need for roads, and, potentially, sprawl.
Although these benefits swayed Kells, are they enough to convince other Americans to ditch their cars? Brook thinks so, noting that a quarter of CSP's members sold their cars after joining the group, and more than half avoided buying cars.
Green House Sources
To reduce your carbon dioxide emissions, take a look at the sources we've compiled, for everything from night-lights to furnaces. All the appliances bear an Energy Star label; however, please note that we have not tested any of these products and cannot endorse them. For more information, consult the Energy Star program or the magazine Consumer Reports. If you're building or remodeling a house, take a look at The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House, by architect Sarah Susanka, who argues for "quality of design over quantity of space."
Written by: Brian Lavendel, Joe Bower, Audubon
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