DAN CHARLES, HOST:
This is NPR’s LIFE KIT. I’m Dan Charles. Here at NPR, I write about climate change, which is so huge it gets a little abstract sometimes talking about greenhouse emissions, carbon dioxide levels. Like, what does this have to do with little old me? One day last summer, though, it got very specific and real, and I realized there are some things I can do about greenhouse emissions where I can even measure the results. It happened on a trip to New York. I was standing on a street in Brooklyn with Donnel Baird, who runs a company called BlocPower. We were looking at a row of brownstones, and Donnel was explaining that buildings have a carbon footprint. Most of them here and everywhere run on fossil fuels of some kind.
DONNEL BAIRD: The trick is, how do you move these buildings off of fossil fuels? How do you move into clean energy?
CHARLES: And he pointed toward one building where they’d done it. They had new electric heating and cooling systems. There were solar panels on the roof. This building’s carbon emissions, he said, dropped by 40%. And he told me he wants to make this happen everywhere.
BAIRD: We’ve got to scale this up and fast – scale and speed – because we only have so much time in terms of climate.
CHARLES: So how fast – I mean, like, I have a house, right? And I’ve got a gas-burning furnace in the basement, you know? And I was thinking, like, should I be ripping this thing out? Should everybody be ripping out their gas furnace?
BAIRD: Everybody should be ripping it out.
CHARLES: Everybody should be ripping out their gas furnace?
BAIRD: It’s bad for you, for one. It’s bad for the planet. It’s also bad for you.
CHARLES: Ever since that day, I’ve been on a mission to see if it’s possible to cut the greenhouse emissions from my house. I’ve gotten a little obsessed. It’s also been fun. So if you’ve wondered the same thing, whether you live in an apartment building or a condo or a big old house, this is a LIFE KIT for you. We’ve got tips for how to cut those greenhouse emissions in big ways, like putting solar on your roof or ripping out that gas furnace, but also in small ways. Ever heard of a smart power strip? This is a LIFE KIT for spring cleaning in a global warming kind of way.
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CHARLES: OK, let’s start with some basics – why our homes matter in the big picture of climate change. Nobody cares more about this than Donnel Baird, the BlocPower CEO we met earlier.
BAIRD: Buildings in the United States are responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. If you want to do something about climate change, your home is among the most important places to look.
CHARLES: Maybe it’s hard to imagine a house releasing greenhouse gases just sitting there, but think about your daily routine. You stumble out of bed in the morning, turn on the lights, turn up the thermostat, take a shower, make some coffee or toast. The heat and the hot water may come from a furnace or a water heater that burn gas. They release carbon dioxide straight into the air, other kinds of pollution too actually. The lights and the coffee maker and the computer run on electricity, and that comes from power plants, most of which are still burning coal and gas. You can actually look at your electric bill and calculate those emissions.
There are big and expensive changes you can make, and we’ll get to those, but here is takeaway number one. There are simple and cheap ways to trim that carbon footprint. They all pretty much do the same thing. They save energy. That is where we’re going to begin – with Rohini Srivastava. She’s an architect and a senior researcher with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
ROHINI SRIVASTAVA: I would start off with heating and cooling my space smartly. So regardless if you are a homeowner or a renter, you still have control over the thermostat.
CHARLES: How you set a thermostat can be a really personal thing, of course, which Srivastava is very aware of. She lives in Pittsburgh now, but she grew up in a hot climate in India.
SRIVASTAVA: So I’m used to more swings in temperature. I can tolerate a much higher temperature. So for me, you know, in some ways, I can manage. I just crack open the window, and I sit next to it. I use my blinds more and more. We have these French doors. I just open them, and there’s cross ventilation. Things that we used to do back home, I still do them here.
CHARLES: Which means, of course, she’s using less energy in summer not turning on her air conditioning because she’s not fighting nature quite so much. And Srivastava says this is good in a lot of ways. What’s good for the climate, she thinks, is also good for people.
SRIVASTAVA: You know, humans have this inherent desire to be connected to nature. Natural ventilation, hearing the birds chirp – those are joys and experiences that you get.
CHARLES: And when it’s cold, she says, see if you can just let the house get a little cooler at night and use more blankets instead. During the day, open the blinds and let the sun help heat the house. By the way, if you like technology, there are so-called smart thermostats that’ll help you with this. You can program them for different temperatures day and night so you don’t have to do it yourself all the time.
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CHARLES: OK. Next step, also pretty simple. Sometimes there are cracks and holes around the house where air is leaking in. This is ventilation you really don’t want. It makes your heater or your air conditioner work harder and wastes energy.
SRIVASTAVA: Start looking at your windows, doors. Is your house leaking? Sometimes if you go near a door, there’s a draft coming.
CHARLES: Fixing these things does require a little work, but you can probably do it just with a little advice from somebody at your local hardware store. Maybe some caulking around a window frame or where the house sits on its foundation, maybe putting weatherstripping around a door or attaching what’s called a door sweep on the bottom of a door, keep air from blowing in. Finally, two more things in the quick and easy category. If you have old-style incandescent light bulbs in your house, go buy some LED lights instead. They make a real difference. And a lot of electronic devices these days just sit there using a small amount of power, even when you’re not using them, like all night long. Televisions, cable boxes, laptop computers and screens and printers – it all adds up. So you can plug them all into a power strip that you switch off every evening or even a so-called smart power strip.
SRIVASTAVA: Which kind of automatically switches off at a certain point. At least I’ve done that with my television.
CHARLES: Doing all these things could cut your energy use by 10- or 20%, although that’ll vary a lot depending on what your home is like. So that’s step one – just use less energy.
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CHARLES: Take away number two – take a really close look at those big machines that heat and cool your home and heat your water. This is where Donnel Baird gets kind of excited.
BAIRD: You want to replace your heating system, your air conditioning system, your hot water tank that produces hot water for cooking and showering. You want to move those systems from fossil fuel equipment to 100% electric. You want to turn your building into a Tesla. Just like Tesla is taking fossil fuel engines out of vehicles, you want to take fossil fuel equipment out of your home.
CHARLES: Just to be clear here, going all electric doesn’t cut your carbon footprint to zero right away if you’re getting a lot of your electricity from coal or gas. But eventually it could because the plan is more and more of our electricity will come from zero-carbon sources, like solar and wind and hydroelectric dams or nuclear.
Before we get into the details of these equipment changes, a lot of people face a big question. What if you don’t own your building? Maybe you’re renting an apartment. You don’t have the power to start messing with your heating system. Or you have a condo, and that boiler in the basement’s run by the condo association. What do you do then? It’s a real obstacle, but not insurmountable.
Our takeaway No. 3 – even renters and condo owners have options. For instance, if you’re paying your own utilities, in a lot of states – California, New York, most of the Northeast – you often have some control over where that electricity comes from.
BAIRD: The very first thing you can do is you can call your local utility company, and you can let them know that you want your electricity to come from 100% clean energy.
CHARLES: Sometimes it’s a separate company that offers this. They’ll buy wind or solar power and add it to the grid for you to use. You may not be able to put solar panels on your own roof, but in a lot of states, you can buy a share in a solar project nearby. It’s called community solar. You can do a little Googling and figure out if that’s an option. As for the systems in your building, don’t give up right away.
BAIRD: If you live in an apartment or a condo, first of all, we want you to open up a conversation with the owner and/or manager of your building about how healthy the building is and how green that building is. And are they saving you enough money by using modern green energy technologies that can reduce your monthly utility bill?
CHARLES: And to help you do this, to educate yourself about what might be possible in your building, BlocPower has a website.
BAIRD: We’ve built out a software platform that allows these folks to search for their building and receive a set of sustainability recommendations about the list of things they can do in their building.
CHARLES: You might have to poke around your building a little bit first. The form asks things like how many units there are, what kind of energy you’re using for different things, like hot water.
BAIRD: So we’ve rolled out our platform across a couple hundred cities, about 55% of the U.S., and hopefully this spring, we will cover the entire United States.
CHARLES: Really? OK.
BAIRD: It’s time to go green, Dan. We don’t have time to screw around with this stuff.
CHARLES: Yeah. So if you’re in a condo, try to, you know, run for the condo board.
BAIRD: Definitely. The condo board’s pretty miserable, but it’s worth it. If you can take your whole building off of fossil fuels and save a bunch of money, you’ll be a hero.
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CHARLES: The website where you can get these sustainability recommendations is blocpower.io. That’s B-L-O-C Power. And since I talked to Donnel, it’s grown, and now it does cover the whole U.S. Of course, you can use this if you’re a homeowner, too. One other thing, by the way – if you’re living in an apartment building, you’re already way ahead of the game when it comes to cutting your carbon footprint because it takes so much less energy in general to heat an apartment compared to a freestanding home. So pat yourself on the back.
Anyway, let’s say you do have the power to make these changes. Maybe you own a house. Maybe you’re living in your parents’ basement and you’ve talked them into trying this. As you can imagine, some of these changes are big-ticket items.
One example – let’s say you’re replacing your old gas furnace and your central air conditioning unit with an electric heat pump. Heat pumps work a little bit like refrigerators. They have a compressor, and they move heat around. They’ll heat your home in winter, and they’ll cool it in summer. A central heat pump can heat and cool the whole house, but there are smaller ones that’ll do it for just a part of the house or for individual apartments. They cost thousands of dollars. You’ll get some of that money back through lower utility bills, and the good ones will get you a tax break worth a few hundred dollars. And in lots of places – Colorado, Minnesota, plenty of others – local utilities will throw in a few hundred dollars, too.
But this is a complicated decision, and maybe you need some help figuring out exactly what makes sense to do in your particular house. So takeaway No. 4 – get some professional help.
SRIVASTAVA: If your local utility is offering rebates or any kind of incentives, they might have recommendations for contractors who can come in and kind of help you with not only understanding what’s going on, but also what’s the best option out there. And they can guide you through that process.
CHARLES: You might want to call in a home energy auditor. Some places, you can get one of these energy audits for very little money because local governments or utilities cover a lot of the cost. Other places, you might have to pay it yourself, comes to about $400 or $500. When you look for one, do a little research, see if they’re certified by a reputable organization – for instance, by the Building Performance Institute.
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CHARLES: Cheng Vang trains energy auditors. He works with the Center for Energy and Environment in St. Paul, Minn. He’s inspected thousands of homes. He never knows what he’ll discover.
CHENG VANG: The strangest experience I’ve had was I went into a home in the city of St. Paul, and they actually had a alligator as a pet.
CHARLES: When he does one of these energy audits, he has a system.
VANG: The checklist usually is, look in your attic, see what kind of insulation they have, how much insulation they have and what type of insulation they have, looking for air leaks in your attic from inside space through that ceiling, sealing those up, making sure that we try to keep all that hot air that you spent money to heat inside your home longer.
CHARLES: An auditor will check all your systems – the water heater, air conditioning, furnace – see how efficient they are. And they’ll do what’s called a blower door test. An energy auditor did this in my house. We closed all the windows in the house, and then he set up this contraption that covered the opening for the front door. And in it, there was a powerful fan that sucked air out of the house.
VANG: When you run that blower door test, then that’s when the fun happens, I tell people (laughter). Then you can walk around the house to look for air leaks around windows, doors, even outlets.
CHARLES: You’re like a house detective.
VANG: Yeah. Oh, yeah. If you like to do investigation work, energy auditor is great because then you can try to figure out what’s going on.
CHARLES: And then your energy auditor can lay out various options, like sealing the leaks, putting in better insulation. Insulation’s tricky. You can actually seal up a house too tightly and end up with unhealthy air. They’ll explain that. Maybe they’ll suggest replacing a furnace or a gas water heater with an electric heat pump. Sometimes they’ll go further and give you a rough estimate for how much each thing would cost and run a little model that predicts how much it’ll save you in utility bills or greenhouse emissions.
VANG: Some homeowners are really money based to where – oh, I’m doing this because I want to save money. Some homeowners do it because of their carbon footprint. They want to say, I want to do this because I want to shrink my carbon footprint.
CHARLES: Now, if you start replacing appliances, you’ll be dealing with heating and air conditioning contractors. And it’s worth shopping around a little bit because some contractors are just more comfortable installing what they’ve always installed, like another gas furnace. Find one that’s just as familiar with new technology, like high-efficiency heat pumps.
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CHARLES: Finally, takeaway No. 5 – check out whether solar makes sense. You know, rooftop solar may seem really cutting edge, but companies have been doing this for quite a while now. Donnel Baird says lots of them have the whole routine down.
BAIRD: They use satellite imagery to look at your roof. Using satellite photography, they can, you know, place virtual solar panels on your roof and see if you have a tree that’s too close to the building that’s going to, you know, shade part of the solar panel. And what time of day is that tree going to throw the shadow on the roof? So solar installation is very, very sophisticated and really straightforward. And so it’s one of the simpler things you can do.
CHARLES: Whether these systems are affordable for you will vary a lot depending on what state you’re in. Different places offer very different financial incentives. But a solar company will be able to draw up a proposal that lays all that out. And remember, there is also that option we mentioned of community solar, buying into a project nearby.
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CHARLES: After I met Donnel Baird on that street in Brooklyn, I did a lot of this, the energy audit, replacing appliances. I was lucky in a lot of ways. Bringing in the heat pump made sense for me because my central air unit was old and needed replacing soon anyway, same with the gas water heater. And I live in Washington, D.C., which has some of the most generous subsidies in the country for rooftop solar. And in the end, it actually worked. The gas furnace is still there, but it’s just a backup now. It only comes on when the weather gets really cold. Everything else in the house is electric, and it looks like the solar panels on our roof will generate as much electricity over the course of a year as what we consume. So on balance, almost zero greenhouse emissions, which feels pretty great.
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CHARLES: So let’s recap. Takeaway No. 1 – there are cheap and simple ways to cut your carbon footprint at home. There’s a long list of them, actually, but they all add up to use less energy.
SRIVASTAVA: Is your house leaking? You know, sometimes, if you go near a door, there’s a draft coming.
CHARLES: Takeaway No. 2 – take a close look at your heating and cooling systems and your water heater. Any upgrade there could make a big difference.
BAIRD: You want to move those systems from fossil fuel equipment to 100% electric. You want to turn your building into a Tesla.
CHARLES: Takeaway No. 3 – even renters and condo owners have options. You can often buy electricity that comes from renewable sources or buy into a community solar project. You can also ask your landlord about upgrades that’ll save you both money. Takeaway No. 4 – get a professional to explain your options, maybe a home energy auditor.
VANG: When you run that blow door test, then that’s when the fun happens, I tell people.
CHARLES: And finally, check out solar. See whether it makes sense for you.
BAIRD: Solar installation installation is very, very sophisticated and really straightforward.
CHARLES: Good luck. The planet thanks you.
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CHARLES: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics. If you made it all the way through this one, you’ll probably like the episode on how to reduce your food waste or even how to talk to kids about climate change. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And as always, here’s a completely random tip, this one from one of our youngest listeners. This is 8-year-old Michael (ph).
MICHAEL: My tip is for those who want to eat healthy and save our planet. Instead of those single-serving yogurt containers, buy a large plain Greek yogurt. Add jams and jellies to the yogurt when you eat it. This way, you can control the amount of sugar you eat, make your own flavor, save money and it’s also fun for kids.
CHARLES: If you’ve got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at [email protected] This episode was produced by Clare Lombardo, who’s also our digital editor, along with Beck Harlan. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. And Clare Marie Schneider is our editorial assistant. I’m Dan Charles. Thanks for listening.
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