Bumps in the Road to Carbon Neutral – The Impact of Household Energy Usehousehold waste

In 2007, a whitewater rafting and environmental education center in Coloma, California, set a goal of reducing the carbon emissions created by their business operations 20% by 2012; 40 % by 2020; and 80% by 2050. By the end of the first year of action, 2008, enormous strides were made toward that goal, actually reducing the overall carbon output by 30 percent.

However, as so many of our public leaders have discovered, there are always unforeseen complications involved in reducing carbon emissions. In 2009, great progress in terms of greening this company’s infrastructure took place such as: installing solar panels, getting a waste vegetable oil refinement system going and converting vehicles to use it, eliminating bottled water, as well as other improvements. But while overall carbon output was decreased by 1 percent in 2009, the per-person output actually increased. How could this be? It turns out that a caretaker arrangement had been made with a family to live on the property for six months. This had a far greater impact on overall carbon output than was anticipated.

Hard work went into building new, energy-efficient infrastructure and harnessing renewable energy sources at this 12-acre camp. In addition to the many improvements made in 2008, such as a waste veggie oil refinement system, conversion of a school bus to run on WVO, and passive and active solar systems for the kitchen, bathrooms, and showers, two new solar thermal hot water heaters, a new minibus that will be running on waste vegetable oil, and some new photovoltaic solar panels were added in 2009. The garden also was greatly enlarged after the installation of a solar-insulated planting bed. Great results were expected to be seen when calculating the total carbon output for 2009, or at least a significant reduction in output from 2008.

But alas! When the numbers were run, the total carbon output per person for 2009 had increased by 13.7%. To be clear, that’s not total carbon output overall, which actually decreased by 1 percent from 2008, but overall carbon divided up by the number of people who participated in programs, people who lived and worked and played here. How, after spending so much time and money on improving infrastructure, was there actually an increase carbon output per person? The news was shocking because a dramatic decrease in all areas was expected, especially propane, having installed the new solar hot water heaters.

Well, as the numbers were analyzed, an explanation emerged. The number of people who came to the river center in 2009 had decreased from 2008, as one would expect in the down economy. But because a caretaker family lived on site for six months, the total overall use of energy did not significantly decrease on the property. Even though vehicle fuel use was way down, thanks to the WVO systems, use of electricity and propane were way up. It was shocking to see how profoundly one household, living in a house that has not been retrofitted for energy efficiency, could drive up energy consumption overall. It’s not terribly bad on the electrical end, but the propane needed to heat the house during the winter is substantial. This brought to mind some facts found in research last year, in particular that the carbon footprint of just heating and cooling an average American home is about 15 tons, roughly half the total carbon footprint of the river center. So while the family that was living on the property was more conscientious about their energy use than the average American household, the fact remains that the day-to-day carbon outputs of heating and cooling a home really do have a large impact.

Moving forward into 2010, it’s exciting to have an increasingly detailed understanding of how a company uses energy, and how it can improve.

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