The Carbon Footprint of an Empty House

I have been on break from teaching this semester (I am teaching summers instead), which means that I have been able to enjoy a snowy February at our cabin in the Adirondack mountains. One of the great things about our off the grid cabin is that it uses no energy when it is empty (which is most the time) – the solar panels keep the batteries charged, the wood stove is cold, and with a composting toilet and no running water, there are no pipes to freeze.

Not so with our regular residence downstate. When we leave that house empty in the winter we have to keep the heat on to keep the pipes from freezing (it would be a little too much trouble to drain and winterize the pipes if we are coming back in two weeks). We usually set the thermostat as low as it will go – 45 degrees – which is plenty to keep the pipes from freezing.

Natural gas is the biggest single category of my carbon footprint – 236 ccf of gas last year works out to 2800 lbs of CO2 at the EPA conversion rate, and my share of that (two of us sharing the house) was 1400 pounds – three quarters of a ton out of my four ton budget. That’s the equivalent of 70 gallons of gasoline.

Ironically, we use less gas to heat the house in the winter when I am home than when the house is empty.  That’s because I can usually feed the woodstove enough that the gas heat only comes on on the coldest of nights. But with no one to feed the woodstove, the house temperature drops, and the gas starts burning.

This month, Robin came back downstate several times for meetings and office facetime. Robin is a little less religious about feeding the woodstove than I am, so naturally she turns the gas heat back up (don’t worry “up” is still quite cool, sweater temperatures). Last time she got back to the cabin she said, “Damn, I forgot to turn the heat down.” So we heated an empty house for ten days. Naturally, I was worried about blowing my carbon budget on an empty house. . .

So I checked the gas meter when I got home to see how bad it was. We burned 57 ccf of gas for the first three weeks of February – 680 lbs of CO2. This compares to 33 ccf (400 lbs co2) for all of January, and 39 ccf (470 lbs co2) for all of December – months that were about the same temperature, but either the heat was down or I was home to feed the woodstove.

Robin, who is very patient and indulgent with this whole carbon counting thing of mine, said “Don’t worry about it, since I left the thermostat up, you can put it on my carbon tab.” 

Except. . .  Robin doesn’t exactly have a carbon tab (my life will be a success if a can get just one other person, maybe my spouse for starters, to keep track of their actual carbon footprint . . .). So half of that February heating bill goes on my carbon tab. Next home improvement project: get one of those internet enabled remotely controllable thermostats for the house. . . .


What is the Carbon Impact of a day of Downhill Skiing?

img_0895-1I have been an infrequent alpine skier lately – I just enjoy the free and quiet pleasures of backcountry skiing more than the crowds, liftlines, competitiveness and overall artifice of the downhill ski scene. But here we are just a few miles from one of New York’s premier ski resorts – Gore Mountain – and it has been years since Robin and I enjoyed a day of downhill together – so we jumped in the Prius early one day this week, had breakfast at Cafe Sara in town and made the gondola by nine thirty am after being fitted with ridiculously short rental skis.
So what is the carbon footprint of a day of alipine skiing? Some studies determined that for most skiers, the actual skiing part (lifts and snowmaking) is only about 2% of a skiing holiday. Just getting to the resort is 73% of the typical skiers carbon footprint.
But since we were already here, I needed to figure out the impacts of just the skiing part of downhill skiing, basically the lifts and snowmaking. The best estimate I have been able to find is an Aspen ski resort study, which comes up with about 0.02 tons of Co2 equivalent per skier day. So 50 days of skiing would be one ton of CO2 – about the same as flying round trip cross country.

img_0896 So my one day of skiing, based on the Aspen numbers, would be about 40 pounds of CO2, or about the same as using two gallons of gasoline. That’s what it takes, per person, for two people driving up here from the NY metro area in a 50 mpg Prius.
EXCEPT – lucky for me and my carbon footprint, Gore Mountain recently built a solar farm a few miles south of here in Washington County, and claims that 85% of its annual electrical demand (I.e., lifts and snowmaking) is now sourced from renewable energy. Doubtless some trading is going on to get to that 85%, but I am ok with trading KWh for KWh. Kudos to New York State, which runs Gore, for investing in an energy future that just might include a climate for downhill skiing! So I figure my carbon footprint for a day of skiing, conservatively, at 30% of the 40 pound Aspen number, or about 12 pounds. Gotta leave something for the diesel in the groomers, which are most assuredly not electric. Yet.

A No Carb Very Romantic Valentines Day in the North Wooods

dsc_5051. . .but watch out for the methane in the dinner menu!

We had a lovely Valentines day without any fossil fuels. Since we are up at our cabin in the woods this week, and we have a foot of fresh snow, that meant a backcountry ski outing that ended up at the Garnet Hill log house restaurant in the wilderness.

dsc_4991Started out with heart-shaped pancakes cooked on our woodstove,with local maple syrup. Our stove doesnt have a proper cooktop, but an iron skillet resting on the coals gets plenty hot for pancakes. Spent the morning on work related stuff. In the afternoon, we headed out the front door into the woods and cross country skied three miles up to the William Blake Pond trailhead at the ski shop.

We then skied the six mile backcountry loop through William Blake Pond and the Botheration Pond trail, ending with a magical descent through snow-shagged firs to the Old Farm trail. We were a little late for a dinner reservations at the Log House!


We had an elegant dinner at the Log House at the Garnet Hill nordic center – this rustic restaurant and inn in the wilderness, and has been operating since the 1930s. The lodge has changed hands this year, and the new owners, Jim and Francis Rucker, are enthusiastic about restoring the network of ski trails. The kitchen still serves up Jane’s Onion Pies, along with an improved menu.  Robin had the heart shaped ravioli primavera; I decided I had burned enough calories skiing to deserve my once-every-month-or -so serving of beef, so I had the surf and turf — a delicious lobster meat bearnais over a filet of beef.


After dinner, we skied the three miles back down the hill to our cabin in the dark, our way  – and the occasional snowflake – lit by the beams of our headlamps. The cabin had not cooled down too much, and I threw on the heart-shaped log I have been saving for the right romantic evening. We snuggled up together with a movie on the portable player in front of the fire.

All in all, a memorable Valentines outing — and one that was totally free of fossil fuels.  But not free of greenhouse gas impacts – beef has a pretty hefty GHG impact – about 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound of beef.  This is due in large part to the methane emissions of flatulent cattle.  So mbby 8 oz filet was responsible for about 13 pounds of CO2 greenhouse gas equivalent.

Counting Carbs for Super Bowl Weekend in the North Woods

I am up at our off-grid cabin in the Adirondacks for a few weeks. Though the drive up here is pretty carbon intensive, even in the Prius (43 pounds CO2 per person), once we are up here we can live pretty much carbon free – the cabin is wood heated and solar powered.

Saturday we took advantage of a great new backcountry ski program run by the village of North Creek – they run the town shuttle van up to the top of an old mining road ten miles and a thousand feet up from town.  A series of backcountry ski trails and glades connects back to the ski area next to town. We took the van shuttle twice and made telemark turns in the powder glades until our legs turned to jelly.  The van is a great deal – just five bucks for the ride up, so ten bucks gets to a full day of mostly downhill skiing.

Figuring out the greenhouse carbs of the  van is more of a challenge. The easy way out is to say – well the van is going anyway so my carbon impact is zero – but that is a cop out. The most conservative way to figure it is to take the fuel consumption for the round tip (after all, the cost of deadheading the van back to town is part of the climate cost of the trip up) and dividing by the number of riders. One 20 mile round trip works out to about two gallons of gas at ten mpg, which is about 40 lbs of CO2.  There were 12 skiers on the morning shuttle, but only five of us in the afternoon. This works out to  about 11 lbs of CO2 per person, plus another three pounds for the round trip to town in the Prius. We went to the movies in Indian Lake Saturday night – a 15 mile drive each way, but with five people in the Prius (3 lbs CO2 per person), it hardly added to the carbon budget.

We got back to our carbon diet with a zero carbon Super Bowl Sunday! We spent most of the day skiing on the Garnet Hill groomed cross country trails right from our doorstep.  In the afternoon, I cut up some down and dry branches for zero carbon heat in our cabiin.

We haven’t been to a super bowl party in years, but it seemed like a good way to connect with the crowd here in North River. When I asked our friend Julie for directions to the party at Katie and Jakes, she just assumed I was looking for directions via the ski trails.  After all, there was a nice moon! So we skied up to North Acres farm in the twilight and walked the last half mile up the road.  I rooted for the Falcons out of contrariness, and they lost anyway.  I am told it was an unusually interesting game and unusually interesting commercials. I would agree, not that I would buy anything being advertised at the super bowl.

A few snow squalls left enough of a velvety dusting of snow to ski down the hill on Harvey Road, and the moon came out to light our way down through the woods back to the cabin, which was still warm.

Final score: Pats 34 Falcons 28 CO2 60.

Living Sustainably Under Trump: Why Bother?

inughAs the White House climate page goes dark, replaced with a pledge to maximize fossil fuel production and consumption, these times challenge one’s personal commitment to live sustainably. After all, if your electoral system just installed a leader and legislature whose platform is a rejection of climate science and the emphatic rejection of any measures to avoid disasterous climate change, why bother taking individual measures to reduce your carbon footprint to a sustainable level, when your actions will be swamped by national policy changes?

But I plan to keep living on my 4-ton annual carbon budget, despite the inconsequentialism argument against it. For me, it’s a matter of personal ethics, not consequentialist ethics — just an internalization of the basic rule that one should not harm other people for one’s own gain, and a variation of the golden rule – live with an environmental footprint that you would have the rest of the world live with. In my small way I want to help redefine the “good life” in a small carbon footprint, non-consumerist way. Think of it as conspicuous non-consumption.

Despite the Trumpification of America, not much has changed to the inconsequentialism of individual climate action. Individual carbon reductions still won’t forestall global catastrophe unless enough individuals take action. We still live in a nation in which 1) a majority of voters support the candidate who takes climate change seriously; 2) our government and regulatory system does not take climate change seriously enough to adopt effective mitigation measures (even the Paris Accord and Clean Power Plan fall short);  3) it’s going to take some serious social change to develop the political consensus we need to move away from fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.

The best way to avoid smoking-induced lung cancers is to stop smoking.  The best way to avoid fossil fuel induced climate disaster is to stop buying and burning fossil fuels. I am living a great life on a 4-ton carbon budget – I get to work every day, sleep warm every night, travel to beautiful places, eat well, stay fit.  I don’t have to live in a hole in the ground to live sustainably.  It is part of who I am.

To paraphrase MLK, the arc of the energy economy bends towards renewability. Like the moral arc, it may not be a straight line, and for two steps forward we may take half a step back. It is up to each of us individually to help bend the arc in every small way we can.

Meanwhile, this clock keeps ticking. And I spent time this week downloading and saving my favorite EPA and EIA pages on greenhouse gas emissions of individual activities.


Is Wood Energy Climate Neutral?

 I am sitting in my wood heated cabin in the north woods reading about how wood energy is worse for the climate than coal.

John Upton at Climate Central,  has a piece (cross posted at Grist) highly critical of the EU’S treatment of wood pellet burning power plants as essentially greenhouse gas neutral (the EU counts the GHG emissions of production and transportation, but not the GHG emissions of burning pellets). According to Upton, wood pellet energy produces “more heat trapping gases than coal.” If true, then biomass (wood) energy joins natural gas and hydro power as climate mitigating energy possibilities panned by enviros as “worse than coal.” Upton rejects any offsetting carbon sequestration of biomass growth in reaching this “worse than coal” conclusion.

Wood burning is not worse than coal for the climate, or the environment.  Every phase of coal energy — from destruction of ecosystems and landscapes to remove it from the ground, to the release of mercury, acid rain, sulfur oxides, and radiation when burning it, to the toxic piles of coal ash around the country — is an environmental disaster — in addition to the highest GHG emissions per megawatt of power resulting from combustion of any fossil fuel. Like all fossil fuels, coal is solar energy that has been stored over eons and cannot renegerate in human time frames.

The EU emissions accounting policy treats the wood pellets as a form of renewable energy — since the combustion emissions are potentially offset in a human time frame by the regrowth of the trees and sequestration of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis at the same rate that it is being consumed. Upton glosses over this assumption, asserting (incorrectly) that the cutting of forests for wood pellets itself releases the carbon stored in the forest, and that burning the pellets for electricity constitutes a second set of ghg emissions.He says “double counting would occur if one country reported carbon pollution from deforestation when pellets were produced, reducing forest carbon . . ..”

Of course, carbon neutrality for wood pellets would depend on what happens to the forests that are cut down — whether they are allowed to regenerate (sequestering an equivalent amount of carbon), or converted to agricultural or development land. But young forests have a larger carbon absorption capacity than old forests. Managing land for wood production could theoretically be carbon neutral.

This is not to deny the huge environmental impact of converting an natural forest ecosystem into a monoculture timber production zone. But biomass fuels mitigate climate change more than natural gas or (apparently) hydro power, and have potential to ease the intermittency problems associated with more direct forms of solar enegy (photovoltaics and wind). And climate change will wreak a more severe disruption to sensitive ecosystems than even monoculture forestry will.

Wood burning also has local air quality impacts that can be severe.  But modern EPA approved stoves are better than the old ones.  Wood heat is never going to be a workable solution for widespread use in densely populated areas or areas subject to air pollution trapping inversions. Wood burning power plants can incorporate emissions controls.

Its 20° F out and I am comfortable next to my wood stove in my cabin.  Both here and in my house downstate I heat primarily with deadwood from my property – I never cut a live tree for firewood, so there is no danger of destroying any ecosystems.

I think there is even an argument that burning dead wood is better for the climate than letting it rot — I haven’t been able to find the definitive study on this, but rotting wood releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.Here’s my attempt to compare the climate warming potential of burning wood versus letting it rot. The chemical formula for the cellulose in wood is C6-H10-O5. So one molecule of wood cellulose could theoretically produce six molecules of CO2 if burned completely, or about 2.5 molecules of CH4 (methane) + 2.5 molecules of CO2 if allowed to completely biodegrade. The molar mass of CO2 is about 44g.  The molar mass of CH4 is about 16g. According to EPA, methane has a global warming potential of from 28-36 times that of CO2.  So for a given amount of wood cellulose (say, one mole), the global warming impact of burning it is 6 molecules of CO2 times 44 g/ mole = 264 grams CO2. The global warming impact of letting it rot completely would be 2.5 molecules c02 times 44g/mole PLUS 2.5 molecules CH4 times 16 g/mole times 28 times potency of methane = 1,230 grams CO2 equivalent.

So it looks like burning dead wood is about four times better for the climate than letting it rot completely into methane and CO2.  Of course wood burns much faster than it rots, and I haven’t studied chemistry since high school, so if someone has a better analysis, let me know.

Counting Carbs for a Year, Coming in Well Under Budget


Last academic year I kept detailed track of my carbon footprint, with an eye on my four ton annual carbon budget. Basically, I stuck to a diet and counted carbs on a daily basis — not on a food diet, but a climate diet. I set a personal goal: no more than four tons of direct CO2 impacts annually. And I set out to have a decent life, getting to work, traveling, weekends in the mountains, taking vacations. I am a little late in posting these results as of September, but here they are.

I kept track with a spreadsheet – how I get to work each day, when I eat greenhouse gas intensive foods, what my impacts are for weekend travel or vacations.  I signed up for a renewable energy contract for my home electricity, so the lights and fridge are greenhouse gas free. With renewable electricity, getting to work with my electric car or electric motorcycle is carb free.  I make a note when I take the bus to work instead, and keep track of my share of the gasoline we burn on weekend trips in our hybrid (20 pounds CO2 per gallon), or when I take the commuter train (.34 pounds CO2 per mile), or occasionally eat red meat (27 pounds CO2 per pound of meat). Paddling a kayak across the river and biking to work counts as a CO2 freebie. Once a month, I toted up my share of the natural gas we used in our house for cooking, water heating, and supplementing our wood stove heat (12 pounds CO2 per CCF of gas, total for the year:  1416 pounds). I do keep the house cool in the winter.

As a teacher, my academic year runs from September to September, so I started counting September 1, 2015. During the year, we made many weekend ski trips up to our off-the-grid cabin in the Adirondacks.  I attended several professional conferences, but mostly avoided air travel, taking Amtrak to North Carolina for one conference, and driving to the others.  I took one flight during the year, to return from North Carolina in time to teach a class (260 pounds CO2). For our vacation this year, we sailed our boat down to South Carolina and left it there for the winter (9 gallons of diesel for the auxiliary motor, my share is 90 pounds CO2), returning to New York via Amtrak.

Environmental organizations tell us we have to reduce our carbon footprint, but few organizations tell us how much we have to reduce it to.  An equal, global allocation of emissions consistent with keeping global warming to a two degree Celsius increase would be quite low, only about two tons per person. This is the figure that shows as their global goal.  A four-ton individual footprint is probably defensible in the developed world; this represents an 80% reduction from the average per capita U.S. footprint of about twenty tons.

When I totaled up the figures for the year, I found I wasn’t even close to my target – but in a good way.  I was directly responsible for 5200 pounds of CO2 emissions this past academic year – about 2.6 tons, well within my four-ton goal for the year.

Looks like next year, I can probably add a round trip flight to the Waterkeeper annual conference, and still stay under budget!

Processing the Election Results

Still processing the shock of the election . . .

We already knew that Trump had the support of a substantial part of the electorate, and we knew the popular vote would be close. Can’t be shocked that there were millions of Trump voters. We knew that.

I am not ready to protest the results of an election, because that seems like protesting against democracy itself. Protesting an election can’t possibly bring this divided country together. The electoral college sucks, but those were the rules agreed on at the founding.

But I am ready to protest illegal actions when they happen.

Trump won the election and deserves a chance to govern within the law.

We all have to stand unified to condemn acts of hatred. Our President elect was happy to take the support of bigots – he must prove his willingness to condemn and prosecute hate crimes now that he will control the Department of Justice.

We will be very busy in the environmental movement in the next years fighting to defend the laws on the books from attack. There are limits on what the President can undo by himself, and we must hold Congress accountable.

US progress on climate change is clearly dead for the next four years. But US (and global) progress on climate change has been grossly inadequate to meet the challenge anyway, and were not likely to accelerate under a Clinton presidency/Republican house. The Paris Accords were not enough to limit warming to two degrees C, and the Clean Power Plan was not enough (by itself) to meet Paris. As a democracy, we will act effectively on climate change when it becomes a top issue for a substantial majority of voters. It’s our job as advocates to make that happen. Whatever we have been doing on the issue so far has not worked politically.

Snarky silver lining: a Trump fueled global recession might do more to limit GHG emissions than the Clean Power Plan.

Republicans now own the economy and the environment. They have two years to demonstrate they can be effective problem solvers when they have all three branches of government. We will hold them accountable.

The sun still rose this morning, and the trees here in the Hudson valley cling to bright colors. An election does not destroy what is beautiful in the world.

I am so grateful for my family, friends, colleagues, and comrades-in-arms at a time like this.

Take courage.



We got back from our sailing trip and switched the solar battery bank inverter back on.  We had turned it off because the batteries were a little low when we were leaving after a few cloudy days, and I wasn’t sure I could explain exactly how to monitor and switch the system to our house sitter.

The next morning, the inverter in the cellar was making the beeping sound that indicates a fault, usually a low battery.  The inverter is the electronic gizmo that converts 12 volt DC from the solar panels and the batteries (like your car battery) to the 120 volts AC that house circuits are wired on. It was beeping. But the batteries were full.

When I rebooted the inverter, it made an arcing noise and blue electrical sparks were visible out of the ventilation holes in the back.  Not good.  The inverter is about four years old, and out of warranty, but it shouldn’t be failing so soon. I made a mental note to add troubleshooting the inverter to my weekend chore list, but I also started pricing replacement inverters online.

Still, based on what I remember from my electronic/ham radio/geek days of high school, I thought that arcing was an unusual way for electronic components to fail. Electronic components usually just burn up.  Arcing requires high voltage bridging an air gap so narrow that the air turns into an electrical conductor — sort of like mini-lightning. So it might be worth opening the unit up (carefully!) to see if something got inside to bridge the air gap between high voltage components.

Sure enough, poking around with a stiff insulated wire where the arcing had occurred, I pulled out a crisp object.  An actual bug. You can see the bug on top of the inverter case in the picture above. After  removing the bug and smoothing out the burned edge of the circuit board, the arcing went away.

The inverter is back on and has been happily powering our (smallish) fridge since Saturday.


A Low Carbon Vacation in the Age of Sail