It’s easy to blame dirty industries for the harm that is being done to the natural environment. However, to think home owners do not have a large role to play in environmental protection is false and has more to do with the fact that its difficult to visualize home owners as a groups impact on the environment clearly instead of just yourself or your neighborhood as individual home owners. This article sets out to help you see the effect of homeowners as a group and discuss a different path that we could follow to play a much larger role in environmental protection than we are doing at present. Home owners either directly use or create the demand for the goods that are using the resources and creating the resultant pollution and environmental degradation that is gradually destroying the natural environment. We begin with a summary of the home owners direct effect on resource usage, followed by a deeper explanation of how these figures break down and finish with a proposal of how we can radically change this picture in the next ten to twenty years. Please refer to the Annual Energy Review 2011 from the US Energy Information Agency for full information (390 pages). Most of our diagrams come from this excellent report.
Percentages can be deceiving, home owners share of water consumption is 176,300 million gallons of fresh drinking water a day or 220 gallons per person and yet we only need about half a gallon of fresh drinking water a day per person! Prices are expected to rise between 5-15% a year depending on your area in the USA.
Home owners are responsible for using 37% of all electricity generated in their homes. Environmentally, it is also shocking that three times the amount we used had to be produced. Two thirds is lost in transmitting the electricity to our homes. This effect becomes magnified the more we use. Electricity prices are projected to increase at about 10% a year, doubling every 7.5 years.
The vast majority of petroleum is used in the industrial sector where the raw materials are being extracted from the earth and the goods transported to markets. Nevertheless, home owners use and therefore have control over 18% of the consumption and in recent years with the introduction of hybrid cars and lately electric cars, our alternatives to conserve are increasing. Does anyone believe with the continued development of India and China with over 2.5 billion in population between them that the price of fuel is going to come down in the next ten years?
Between 55 and 65% of waste depending on the category is generated from our homes. Recycling has increased, but at around 34% still lags well behind the benchmark Switzerland at around 52% recycling. The cost of waste disposal will continue to rise as it has to be hauled away using fuel based vehicles.
What does our consumption look like? A more detailed breakdown.
US water usage was about 410,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) in the United States during 2005 (most recent report).
80% consists of surface water and 82% of that is fresh water. 49% of the daily total or 200,000 Mgal/d is needed for thermoelectric generation of which 40% is used for electricity in buildings, which are completely within the home owners control.
Another 28% of water is used for irrigation in agriculture (to put food on our tables – 40% of which gets thrown away as waste when you factor restaurants into account as well as domestic!) Only 11% was withdrawn for public use: homes, offices, industrial.
What, therefore is within our control as home owners? 40% of thermoelectric consumption 80,000Mgal/d, another 45,100Mgal/d of public water consumption and 51,200Mgal/d of irrigation water for food trashed for a grand total of 176,300Mgal/d or 43% of total water usage.
This is a surprisingly big number. 43% of water usage is within the home owners direct control not requiring any interference from or single change in legislation. Of course if we factor in political activism, I am sure we could bring a lot more of the water usage under our control. Let’s start here though as it already represents a huge potential saving.
Water has a very direct connection with energy and food production . For more information on water read the US Geological Survey Report. In both food and energy we have inefficiencies or waste of between 40-60%! That is a huge opportunity economically for the USA.
We spend $1.204 trillion or $3,895 per person per year on energy. 40% or $481 billion is used in buildings. Almost half a trillion dollars a year to heat, cool and light buildings!
The above chart shows our home owners or domestic energy consumption. The electricity losses are almost two thirds of total electricity production mostly through transmission losses.The rapid rise in the amount of electricity we are consuming as our lifestyles have improved over the past fifty years and the reduction in petroleum usage in the late seventies through the oil crisis and the growth of the more efficient foreign imported cars that Americans started to buy in large quantities caused this drop. Note also the renewed reductions in the last few years. The clear conclusion from this chart is that we have to get electricity production and consumption under control if we are to become more energy efficient. We already have the technologies available to achieve that today.
We are increasing energy usage in the area of appliances and lighting, water heating and air conditioning,no doubt as home sizes increase and we have to run more devices per home for the same number of occupants. If you simply look at the consumption chart, this is not such a disturbing picture. However, if you take a look at what this is costing us you start to get a much clearer focus on why we have to change.
We are looking at a 4 fold increase in the cost of providing energy for our homes with no end in sight for the increases to plateau or start to decline anytime soon. The giant big deficit? We, the homeowner is ultimately driving the demand that is at the very least partly to blame for it!
Today we produce 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day! Roughly double what our waste production was in 1960.The good news is that we are getting a lot better at recycling our waste instead of filling landfills, we have begun to understand that the materials that our products are made from are precious and ultimately scarce and need to be conserved and recycled. Today about one third of our waste is recycled, we need to get that up to at least 60% though.
You definitely need to sit down for this one! First though lets start with the good news.
Light duty vehicles fuel consumption is finally showing signs of improving and the new fuel mileage standards to be met by 2025 of 54.5 miles per gallon will drive that innovation even faster. Note, the only vehicles that are achieving this sort of fuel consumption today are hybrid cars and electric cars! Note though how any gains in efficiency for light vehicles is being displaced many time over by the fact that we have dramatically increased our heavy ruck traffic as we have to haul all that imported stuff from China across the country.
Now for the bad news.
Remember $1.50 a gallon gas? What are you paying today? Well this is how that is draining our resources. As you saw in the chart above, fuel consumption is improving, but what we are paying for Crude oil to refine into petroleum has gone up dramatically and will most likely continue to do so. The cost of fuel has gone up nearly five times since the mid nineties. How much more does it need to go up until we change our behavior?
Is there a different way to live?
The home as a machine, instead of a passive building.
It is time to think differently about the place we call home. By looking at the problem through the lens of sustainability it is possible to see a very different future for the American economy by reconfiguring how we provide resources for our homes. It is possible today already to create a home that generates its own renewable power, can harvest most of not all of its water needs and can clean and return more pure water t the ground than it receives through the water mains today. It is called a Net Zero Home.
As water gets more scarce (which it is at an alarming rate) and the cost of oil and electricity keep increasing (as demand for it increases and supply remains more or less the same or declines), it becomes progressively unrealistic to expect to pump water and transmit electricity to homes from a centralized grid system (which requires huge investments as it is aging or using the wrong energy sources and decaying in many instances). By definition if we continue to increase the size of this system, we will continue to increase the inefficiencies and therefore commit ourselves to a path with an ever more expensive cost of living than we have already at the present oil price rates. A system we can already hardly afford.
Our present infrastructure is built with central resources using cheap energy to pump electricity, sewage and water to their desired destinations – a scenario that made sense prior to the oil crisis in the 1970’s. The problem with this system is that as energy prices rise so do the costs of the system and it’s inefficiencies get magnified and become glaringly expensive. Energy prices will continue to rise over the long term. To bring costs down, we need to use a lot less to do the same tasks and that included moving commodities such as water and electricity around a lot less. It is about making different choices that could deliver different outcomes for us, rather than continuing on the single track option that we presently have today where a utility supplies energy from mainly non renewable resources, pockets the profit and leaves us with a constantly rising cost of living. Thinking of and using our homes as machines to generate their own energy and water will reduce the costs and inefficiencies substantially and if done right will result in sources of income from renewable resources for the home owner.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, centralized power was the only way to think of providing energy to a mass population. Today if we produced electricity at home using solar, harvested all the rainwater that fell on our roofs and recycled our water through sewage systems designed to clean the water onsite it would cost about $50-80,000 per home to install the systems without taking into account the massive innovation that this initiative would unleash over the next ten years and the cost savings that would result from economies of scale to do this for the 114 million US homes. This initiative would cost about $5.1 trillion. Implemented over the next twenty years that is only $250 billion per year, or a quarter of the cost of generating power every year. It sounds crazy to even contemplate investing 5 trillion dollars, but the alternative, present course of action, is that we are going to spend this anyway, except instead of ending up with a system that produces water and electricity for the nation practically for free, we will have paid this out to other countries and will still have a system that tethers us to oil and a constantly rising cost of living because of it.
Strategically, it would dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, slash our emissions and infrastructure costs which would all result, ultimately in a much lower cost of living and therefore more competitive labor force in global terms. While the amount of money that it would take to achieve this change is big, given the advantages of such a shift in thinking and infrastructure the right question to ask is why would we not want to invest in implementing it as a home owner? By some estimates that would represent a rate of return of about 60% over a 25 year period on an investment in these facilities for the individual homeowner. That might possibly represent a much more solid investment for the average homeowner than an investment in the stock market! How’s your 401 doing by the way?
In addition to the attractiveness of this idea from an investment and energy cost cutting perspective, for every watt of electricity produced at home we could save the cost and environmental impact of generating 3w in the national power grid because the transmission losses are dramatically reduced as the power does not have to travel long distances across transmission lines!
This sort of initiative would represent a bold new thinking of the magnitude of the 1960’s space program, BUT would deliver tangible cost of living savings, US competitiveness improvements and strategic independence from foreign energy suppliers within most of our lifetimes.
We need a leader strong enough and visionary enough to see the potential of such a mid course correction in the way that we create a modern lifestyle. All of the technologies to achieve these changes already exist and have been implemented in some form in homes. What is required is for them to be scaled to mass production levels and that would require an innovative leader of the caliber of Henry Ford to make that possible!