Saturday, January 20, 2007

That's a ton of carbon dioxide

Household energy usagePropaneElectricity
December 2005185 gallons1040 KWH
December 200628 gallons729 KWH
Change:85% reduction30% reduction
CO2 reduction:2011 lbs417 lbs
Approximate C02 cost of corn production & harvest: 440 lbs

If you add the two CO2 reduction numbers together, and subtract what it took to grow and process the corn, our household was responsible for putting 1,988 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for December 2006 compared to the same month last year.

That's 66 lbs per day, or about the weight of my two 3 1/2-year-old kids combined.

(I'm assuming the CO2 emitted by burning the corn is equivalent to the CO2 absorbed by the corn plants when they were grown. It's actually probably a net gain, since we're only using a fraction of the corn plant's biomass.)

What did we do to achieve these dramatic results? Honestly, not that much. We replaced light bulbs with compact fluorescents, I put some power strips on the computers and TV equipment to eliminate "phantom loads" when not in use, and we switched our home heating from a propane furnace to a corn/pellet stove. As an added bonus, these changes should pay for themselves in just a few years.

As regular readers may realize, I worry more about peak oil than global warming, probably because my brain can only process one potential global crisis at a time. I'm well aware of climate change concerns, which is why I decided to calculate these numbers. I have to admit though, that I have not read extensively on climate change, because, for the most part, the solutions for both of these problems amount to the same thing: Stop making every aspect of our existence dependent on fossil fuels. As an added bonus, these changes should reduce our need to send lots of money to unstable countries who generally seem to hate us and want us all to die.

But it's pretty near impossible to go cold turkey on fossil fuels. There's a reason we use them for everything. They're abundant, cheap, and packed with energy. At least on the surface. The best we can do to get away from them is just keep trying to conserve, learn, adapt, and change.

The right answers are sometimes hard to find. As I mentioned, since last year, we've switched from burning propane for heat to burning corn. We've recently switched from corn to wood pellets, at least temporarily. There were two reasons for this: 1) Rodents. Until we make some better arrangements, the corn is too much of a rodent magnet. We're working on that... and 2) The cost difference evaporated. Corn has more than doubled in price due to a poor harvest nationally, and corn-to-ethanol plants popping up like weeds throughout the midwest. What we bought for $2.12 a bushel in September now sells for $5.32 a bushel. (Corn-to-ethanol is kind of a silly thing to do, in my opinion, but that's a topic for another day.)

It's hard to figure whether corn or pellets make more sense. The corn is locally produced and harvested, but that generally means lots of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. I don't know where the pellets are shipped in from, but I'm sure it's not local (though it is in the US). They are made from a waste product (hardwood sawdust), but I can't really find any information on the energy required to produce them. And bagged 40 lbs. at a time, the packaging definitely adds up. As I understand it, corn burns a little cleaner, a little hotter, and a little more efficiently than pellets, but produces more ash. Corn can be renewed in a growing season, where a woodlot can require decades to establish. Both corn and pellets require more processing than burning whole firewood, but they both burn more efficiently, and something like 85% cleaner in terms of particulate emissions. They also require more technology and moving parts for burning. I don't know if any of these three options could scale up to heat everybody's homes. In our case, we could theoretically grow enough corn to provide all the heat we need, but we're not in a position to do that at this point. And to top it all off, there's some concern about using a food product as fuel.

What's best? You tell me, because I can't figure it out. All I know is that compared to last year, we've come out ahead in several different ways.

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At 1/22/2007 11:31 PM, Blogger Morgan said...

Your numbers they hurt my head

At 1/23/2007 10:03 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Sorry, I should start putting warning labels on this stuff. Either that, or deflect the blame to your pseudo tumor cerebri...

At 1/23/2007 3:19 PM, Blogger Liz said...

That's quite an impressive reduction.

Just wait till you start paying more per gallon for your propane, something that really burns me up (we use only 100 gal/yr)... "the more you buy the more you save!" How very American.

At 1/24/2007 4:00 PM, Blogger Loner said...

I love this - we have been thinking about alternative heating, but will probably have to change out the water heater first. I changed out all the light bulbs and my electric bill is $50 cheaper than last year. Not too shabby.

At 1/24/2007 8:41 PM, Blogger Beo said...

E4-1st off that is awesome and I commend you and thank you on behalf of my children. Sounds silly, but its true. I say the same things to hybrid drivers I meet in parking lots.

2nd-I am waaaay more keen on pellets than a NG furnace (which I currently have), but still look for less manufacturing in my biomass. Pellets have to be "made", but corn and logs can be grown.

This link
is uber informative and a great exaple of Natural Capitalism, but also takes way more fossil fuels than going to the wood lot and picking up some deadfall. A friend of mine heats his house off the annual deadfall on 5 acres-effecient burner, well insulated house.

I am more on the Global Warming side than Peak Oil, but when the cheap oil is gone, I'll take a good axe (or 2 acres of organic corn)over a $7 million pellet manufacturing plant any day.

At 1/26/2007 5:20 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Liz - Hopefully we'll use enough on hot water and cooking to keep them off our backs. But you never know.

Loner - Yeah, the little things add up. Thanks for stopping by!

Beo - I hear you on the manufacturing thing. I do wonder about the corn "manufacturing" that goes on across the road though. I hope someday we can produce our own fuel. That's the goal. At least until we have a woodlot. No deadfall around here!


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