By Coral Bliss Taylor
Most of the concerns raised about the unsustainability of our energy practices focus on industrial activities, such as development of the oilsands. But other sectors give rise to big energy sustainability issues too. Consider housing.
A friend recently asked what could be done to make his new house more sustainable. It’s a good question because there’s a lot to learn about household sustainability.
It’s important to keep in mind that in Canada our most significant residential energy uses are: transportation first, followed by space heating and then electricity and hot water. It’s also useful to remember there are three ways to combat energy use: most important is conservation, then replacement with renewables, and finally efficiency gains.
To increase household energy sustainability, the following in order of effectiveness are your smartest moves:
- Curb vehicle use.
If you can have only one household vehicle, that’s terrific. More efficient vehicles are also important, but more so is curbing vehicle use. Reducing transportation energy use also reduces other environmental pollutants. And any alternative transportation, even transit, involves more exercise, so this increases health as well, and it is not a negligible effect. Reducing vehicle pollutants also improves air quality, contributing to everyone’s well-being, but this effect is smaller.
Living in an inner-city neighbourhood that is close to many services and walkable is a good strategy. Many houses in these areas are infills – redevelopments – and they have a smaller impact on the environment than homes in brand new areas, the building of which causes significant disturbances to the land and environment, for example, by stripping, grading and loss of habitat and agricultural capacity.
- Try to buy local goods, and fewer goods.
This reduces transportation energy and pollution from shipping, as well as the environmental costs of manufacturing the things we didn’t buy. It also reduces waste products.
Using this strategy is easiest when you focus your buying power on great things to do rather than things to have.
- Don’t buy a massive house with tons of space you’ll never need.
And draft-proof your home. Ensure you have sufficient insulation. Wear a sweater and slippers. If possible, use radiant heating rather than forced-air heating. Ideally, this radiant heating would be in the form of in-floor heating, warmed using solar hot water panels (solar thermal panels), or geothermal. Solar hot water panels can also be used to heat water. These panels are more efficient and a lot more cost-effective than solar electric panels (also called solar PV panels). If a furnace is the only option, then higher-efficiency is definitely better.
- Refrigerators are a critical variable.
The largest household draw on electricity comes from the refrigerator, because it cycles on so frequently. The fridge should be just big enough to hold the food you want, and not too big. If you’re going to have only one high efficiency appliance, this is the one to have.
One of the next biggest things is the dryer. This uses a lot of energy, and can be replaced by air-drying, although, this can be hard when doing laundry for many people. On the other hand, your clothes last longer that way. Power bars are another great way to reduce energy, as are efficient lightbulbs. The remaining electricity use can be replaced or offset by solar PV panels, or by buying wind power. Services such as Bullfrog power let you pay a little extra for electricity to ensure your electricity use is covered by wind power in the provincial grid.
- Try to reduce hot water use.
Ways to do this include washing clothes in cold water, having an energy (and water) efficient laundry machine and dishwasher, and having low-flow faucets and showers. If possible, heat water with the sun, with the hot water panels mentioned previously, or have an on-demand hot water heater.
There is a lot more to be said on sustainable housing. For example, we need to cut back on water consumption generally, not just our hot water use.
On the residential energy front alone you can see there is a lot to do. But getting it done on a large scale requires legal and regulatory changes – for example, new rules aimed at minimizing the conversion of agricultural land to new suburbs and at producing a far greater supply of compact and centrally-located housing.
As always, there are political dimensions to our quest for sustainability and a low-carbon future. I invite you to become involved.
Coral Bliss Taylor is Secretary of the Green Party of Alberta and in 2015 was the party’s candidate in Chestermere-Rockyview.
Source Green Party of Alberta