Home News and Features The Challenges of Combating Climate Change Via Everyday Energy Use

The Challenges of Combating Climate Change Via Everyday Energy Use

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Solar panels proliferate in the area, helping residents to get energy for their homes from the sun. Photo by John Lazenby.jpg

So you want to do more to stop climate change through everyday energy use? Some of you have already started doing the little things. You shut the lights off when you leave a room. You put on a sweater before turning up the heat. You walk or ride a bicycle if you can. You bring your own bags to the store. You compost. But you know you can do more.

Some people are already “all in” and live off the grid, grow their own food, and don’t own a car. Others don’t believe in climate change and fly jets all over the place while completely disregarding their carbon footprint. Yet most people I know are somewhere in the middle. They know climate change is based on science and do what they can. 

Now we know little steps we learned in the 1970s are not cutting it. Climate change is coming on fast. It was reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared this past July as the hottest month in human history. This report made me want to do more to help delay the forthcoming human barbecue without harming the environment in other ways.

To take a step further, I called my local utility, Washington Electric Coop, and talked to Bill Powell, also known as the “energy coach.” He seemed very no-nonsense and knowledgeable. I wanted to find out about energy incentives for getting rid of an old, inefficient wood stove and replacing it with a new, efficient one to reduce my reliance on fossil fuel.

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When I spoke with Powell again, during an interview for The Bridge, he told me bluntly it is no longer about simple steps. “You can only do things one person at a time. The easy stuff doesn’t make a difference. It is the big stuff that makes a difference.” Powell painted a picture of a world where, if we want to reduce our energy use, we have to take BIG steps. And the two areas where Vermonters use the most energy are heating and transportation.

Heating

Heating in Vermont is serious business, and Vermonters are notorious for not liking change. But people have to take another look at the costs of oil heat versus other systems and the change might look better. I know from analyzing my own heat bills over the past few years that it costs significantly less to incorporate wood heat with oil back up than to rely solely on oil. And after talking to Powell, I know I have to work toward genuinely weatherizing my old farmhouse.

Getting a weatherization analysis is a key first step before laying out any cash on a new heating system, Powell said. As an employee of Washington Electric Coop, which serves 11,000 households in 41 towns, Powell has had the opportunity to discuss this topic a lot. Before anyone does anything, Powell said it is important to get an energy audit of your house. And then follow up with a reputable contractor to do the insulation and other work that needs to be done.  This lowers heating costs even before investing in a new system. 

And new systems require money. Whether installing photovoltaics or a geothermal heat pump, you need to have access to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of your house. Powell pointed out that Washington Electric Coop and Efficiency Vermont offer incentives, though.

Efficiency Vermont offers up to a $6,500.00 rebate for air-to-water heat pumps, $6,000 for central pellet furnaces, $400 for clothes dryers, and $2,200 for ducted heat pumps. You can also get a $100 rebate for DIY weatherization. There are other incentives and rebates available as well through the organization. Washington Electric Coop offers even more incentives.

But first you have to talk to someone like Powell and find out how big your footprint is. How many fossil fuels do you burn? What is the thermal performance of your building?

“We can do this one house at a time,” Powell said. He sounded calm and confident, not frantic or alarmist as some people sound when talking about this subject. “I am not here to proselytize. Some people will lead and others will follow…over time,” he said. 

Transportation

And as for transportation, I would love to ride a bike to work. However, my work is 27 miles away and I live on the top of a steep hill. It isn’t feasible. Especially not in winter. So I have a few choices: (1) Move to town, get a new job, and walk to work; (2) Move to the town where my job is (but far from everything else); (3) Get an electric car; (4) Carpool; (5) Do nothing different. I chose to carpool  because right now getting an electric car seems out of reach both economically and logistically. I alternate driving with a coworker three days a week, which adds up to eliminating about 270 miles per month. But owning an electric car would be something I think about longingly.

Writer Will Lindner wrote a detailed piece for the July 20 issue of The Bridge about the ins and outs of driving electric cars. Lindner’s article describes how Vermont has a growing electric car charging infrastructure and government incentives, which encourages people to purchase such vehicles.

His article and my talk with Powell gave me a deeper understanding about owning an electric car. First of all, they cost more than what I consider “regular” cars, and what Powell calls “gassers.” One of Powell’s key points, after describing the pros and cons of electric cars, is that charging their batteries is the biggest obstacle for potential purchasers.

Gassers, or “regular” cars, have internal combustion engines, which run on gasoline. When you run out, you just go to a gas station, and in a few minutes, you have a full tank. Gassers are easy. By contrast, if you have an electric vehicle, you plug your vehicle into an electrical source. If you plug into your regular (level-1) 120-volt electrical system at home, you are pulling the same amount of electricity as you use for your toaster and refrigerator. It takes a long time and you can’t always get fully charged overnight. People who need to drive distances usually need the next level (level 2) — 240-volt — electrical system. This means you may need to add a new wire of sufficient size to handle the charger. The fastest (level 3) is called a DC fast charge. These are even more expensive. And public fast chargers are few and far between, Powell notes.

According to chargehub.com, Montpelier has 22 chargers for electric car users. There are 19 level-2 public chargers and three level-3 chargers located all around town, including a few near the State House. Single units are also located at the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, Hunger Mountain Coop, and National Life. 

But to assert Montpelier has 22 chargers available for public use is misleading because one of the level-3 chargers is at the Berlin Irving station, and one is at the Cody Cheverolet dealership. Three of the level-2 chargers are at the Nissan, Mazda, and Ford dealerships, and two of the level-2 chargers are way down Barre Street at Caledonia Spirits. So that leaves 15 charging stations in downtown Montpelier. If more than 15 people come to downtown Montpelier with electric cars, then some will be out of luck charger-wise.

“Most people don’t have what is required to successfully migrate from gasser to EV,” Powell said. In addition to the charger at home, a heated garage is best because batteries don’t do well when they are cold. But if you don’t have to commute, or at least not very far, an electric car might be the way to go. “Everyone has an outlet somewhere where they can plug in,” Powell said. He spoke enthusiastically about his own Chevrolet Bolt. “My experience is, ‘holy moly this thing is quick.’ The performance of these cars is outrageous.” He got his Bolt in April and has yet to see how it fares over the winter, though. 

Powell had scoffed at my original request for a simple list of things you can do. “There are no free lunches. The easy stuff has already been done,” he told me at the outset. But here is my list of things I personally try to do:

  • Carpool on the commute
  • Hang washing on the line
  • Grow some of my own food
  • Pool resources
  • Shop local
  • Work toward weatherizing the house (aspirational for now)
  • Get the most energy-efficient heating system I can afford
  • Eat more plants than animals

Places where I need improvement:

  • Car (I can’t yet see affording an electric car and the necessary accoutrements).
  • Inertia — If it ain’t broke (my furnace, for example), I don’t fix it.
  • I still buy some cheap plastic stuff.
  • DIY weatherization.

But I am keeping Powell’s words in mind every day. “Collectively we have to move off fossils. We know that. The implications are serious.” 

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Editor, writer and photographer with The Bridge since May 2020. Managing editor of The Bridge from 2014 to 2017. Writer and editor for the Caledonian Record. Correspondent and contributing writer for The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, Burlington Free Press, Green Mountain Trading Post, North Star Monthly, Science Magazine, Country Woman, Vermont Magazine, The Northland Journal, and other publications. English teacher and Interventionist in the Montpelier Roxbury School district. Born in Montpelier.