Homes, Cars and Carbon Footprints

By Bill Moore

Posted: 03 Oct 2010

Yesterday, I was privileged to be the keynote speaker at the 2010 Green Homes Tour here in Omaha. The event began in the beautiful new Mammel Hall on the South Campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The three-story, 120,000-square-foot building is UNO's first LEED certified building and houses the College of Business Administration.

The challenge for me as the guest speaker was how do I tie together energy efficient homes and energy efficient vehicles? What I decided to do was focus on the need to reduce the carbon footprint of both our built environment and our transportation system. Because neither I nor the organizers were sure whether I would be speaking in the atrium or the auditorium with its panoply of state-of-the-art multimedia technology, I opted to simply go with a prepared speech and forego my usual slide presentation. As it turned out, enough vendors showed up to fill up the atrium, so we moved into the fabulous auditorium and I had the chance to talk to 60-100 people.

Here is a "Cliff's Notes" version of that address.

FIRST, I want to thank you for the invitation to address you this morning at the start of the 2010 Green Homes Tour. Having viewed online photos of the homes featured today, I am sure you will appreciate the innovation and foresight that they represent. Their owners and the teams that helped create them clearly understand the importance of playing a leadership role in nurturing the ongoing shift towards more energy efficient homes that began some 30 years ago with the first oil embargoes. That era, as traumatic as it was at the time, not only spurred development of more fuel efficient vehicles but also fostered the drive for higher building insulation standards, better windows, more efficient appliances.

Today, we're not just interested in R-values and Energy Star ratings, but LEED standards, green roofs, xeriscaping, and zero energy homes; and for good reason. According to the U.S. Energy Department, the average American home produces 27,300 pounds of CO2 emissions annually--compared to 12,100 pounds CO2 produced by the average automobile. 43% of that is for heating and cooling. Obviously, there is huge room for improvement in reducing the carbon footprint our all our homes.

But there's another statistic I want to share with you today. While it is true that the average American home generates twice as much CO2 as the average car, what that statistic doesn't say is that there are now more cars in Nebraska than there are people. As of 2008, the latest figure available, there are 2,148,061 registered motor vehicles in the state; meanwhile the population, as of July 2009, stood at 1,796,619.

Considering there are some 711,000 households across the state, that works out to be just over 3 vehicles per household. That means, on average, our personal vehicle "fleets" per family generate as much, and probably more greenhouse gases than our homes. And while improving the energy efficiency of our dwellings -- including our schools, and places of worship and work -- can be a long-term investment, doing something about our cars and trucks is an actionable item we can do something about over a shorter time frame. On average, we Americans stay in the same house for at least seven years, while we trade cars every three year.

As you may know, I write about electric vehicles: scooters, cars, buses, even airplanes. Since beginning EV World over a decade ago, I have seen remarkable progress made, especially in the last several years. For example, next month, General Motors rolls out the Chevrolet Volt, which they describe as an electric car with a range extender: this from the company that supposedly "killed the electric car." Depending on various factors, you'll be able to drive between 25 and 50 miles on electric power alone. The gasoline engine never turns on. After that, you can drive another 300 in hybrid mode. The cost to recharge the Volt each night works out here in Omaha to be less than 60¢ at current OPPD power rates. The battery pack is warranted for 8 years or 100,000 miles. The MSRP is $41,000 and for the time being, there's a $7,500 federal tax credit available, which is, of course, a nice incentive, especially if you live where they will be sold. Unfortunately, that's not here in Nebraska; not yet.

Nissan will be introducing an all-electric car called the LEAF. It's sticker price is just under $33,000 and it too qualifies for the $7,500 tax credit. It too won't be sold here, at least not for the next couple years.

Other electric and hybrid cars out there, including the popular Toyota Prius, which my wife and I own. There are Ford hybrids and Honda hybrid. Mercedes offers hybrids, as does GM, and BMW also is moving into the space. And if you're net worth justifies it you can buy today a $100,000-plus Tesla Roadster, which has neck-snapping acceleration.

In fact, nearly every carmakers has some sort of electric-drive program in development, with cars slated for sale in 2011, 2012 and beyond. By 2020, Ford estimates 25% of the cars its sells will have some form of electric drive. Some estimates put a million electric cars on our roads by 2015.

But there are other "green mobility" options that don't always involve buying an automobile. Some of them actually involve little or no cost and are, curiously enough, directly related to where we live.

Here's an interesting factoid from the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey that I want you to consider. 25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home. 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work.

Let me use Papillion, where I live, as an example. I am within one mile of the post office, the bank, the grocery store, the library, the department store, and two home improvement centers. All of these are either in easy walking distance or biking distance; and depending on the nature of the errand and the time window I have, I'll do either, though I usually prefer using the bike; and in my case, it has electric assist, which helps me up the hills, and is faster than walking. Any idea how much energy you burn walking or biking -- figured in watt hours per mile? Walking 1 mile at 3 mph consumes the equivalent of 0.14 watt hours of energy. A 60 watt light bulb burns 428 times more energy an hour; a conventional automobile traveling the same distance uses more than 1,300 watt hours; that's 9,800 times what it takes to walk it.

Beyond that one mile radius, it probably makes sense to use some form of motorized vehicle, which in Nebraska is a car or truck since we don't allow Neighborhood Electric Vehicles on our city streets. Where NEVs, as they are called, are permitted, a whole range of options become available, most of them manufactured right here in the USA and for under $10,000. NEVs, which have a federally restricted top speed of 25 mph, can easily range out 3, 4 or five miles, as long as the access roads are posted 35 mph or less. Like any electric vehicle, they are extraordinarily efficient, costing pennies to charge. Most have a range of about 30 miles. Batteries typically need replacing every few years depending on use cycles and run around $1,800 or so. They come in 2 and 4 passenger models, as well as utility bed versions for hauling things.

Beyond this 3 to 5 mile ring, regular automobiles or trucks are clearly the next option where public transit isn't readily available, though for some and depending on the situation, electric-powered motorcycles and scooters are becoming a viable option. An close acquaintance of mine currently holds two world land speed records for an electric motorcycles at 173 mph. Another holds the world record for the climb up Pikes Peak. Both records were set just this year. The technology is maturing rapidly.

In the realm of conventional automobiles, car makers are starting to produce ever more fuel-efficient models, some starting to rival hybrids like the new Chevy Cruze. Of course, these vehicles have a very vulnerable Achilles Heel: they are still petroleum dependent, whereas electric vehicles are not. Most electric power is produced from indigenous sources: coal, natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear energy, with renewables slowly -- much too slowly in my view -- contributing more to the overall energy mix.

Besides their quiet operation and lack of tailpipe emissions, the strongest suite electric vehicles have is they are petroleum-free and fuel agnostic. The electric power to run them can come from fossil fuels, nuclear energy or renewable sources: wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydrokinetic. This makes them an ideal technology and policy pathway by which to reduce our dependence on petroleum, itself a finite resource that will be increasingly sourced from some of the world's most politically vexing nation states, as well as from some of the planet's most inaccessible regions. We saw the disastrous consequences of that reality play out this summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now in all candor, even electric vehicles are no "silver bullet." Unless powered by nuclear energy or renewables, they still indirectly result in CO2 emissions, though only about one-half to one-third that of petroleum-powered cars even when the power comes from burning coal. Their batteries are expensive, subject to cold and heat which reduces usable range, and they take time to recharge. Introducing a single Volt or LEAF into a neighborhood is equivalent to adding another home on the block. There is plenty of overnight generation capacity in America, but they do pose challenges to local grids that utilities need to understand and prepare for.

Beyond the question of energy and emissions, the average hybrid contains some 25 pounds of rare earth elements, over which China has a virtual monopoly at the moment. And while lithium for their batteries is somewhat more widely dispersed than rare earth lanthanides, much of the more readily accessible forms are located in just a handful of countries, with the largest concentrations found in the salt pans of the high Andes above 10,000 feet, on the borders of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. The latter, it should be noted, is on much friendly terms with Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran than the United States.

Electric vehicles are an important way forward, as are the green homes on today's tour. They use energy far more efficiently and with less local environmental impact. And they are a pleasure to drive. But they are only one minor character in the larger drama of history unfolding before us, a drama in which each of us has a small, but also potentially important role to play.

In summary, I see two important lessons here: One is that like green homes, greener mobility options are becoming available, but it will take time and commitment before we see them become the norm and not the exception, as they are today. It may be decades before UNO hosts an "Old Homes" Homecoming were participants such as yourselves visit the relics of a bygone era of cheap energy and unconscious consumption.

The second lesson is that it's up to each of us to take that first step, regardless how small or how large. The families that built the residences on the Green Homes Tour didn't wait for it to become fashionable or even affordable. It just made sense for them. It was the right thing to do. Someone had to start. Someone had to be "the change they were looking for." Now it's our turn.

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