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A Matter of Choice

Andy Koenigsberg

Feb 14, 2022

It should be clear to anyone paying a modicum of attention that climate “change” has become the climate crisis or even an emergency. Climate change is now routinely in the news, weather reports and documentaries. The Boston Globe is covering climate change under the heading of “Into the Red.”

Weather disasters can now be definitively associated with climate change. FEMA estimates that 40% of Americans live in counties which experienced climate disasters. Disasters include more frequent floods, torrential rains, heat waves, droughts, wildfires and more powerful hurricanes. Disasters do not distinguish between blue and red states either.

The question then becomes what can we do about it? Certainly electing officials committed to addressing the issue is a start. Regardless of the inability to tackle the problem at the national and international level, state and local governments have taken the reigns. For example, Massachusetts climate law requires its greenhouse emissions to drop in half by 2030 and go to net-zero by 2050. Even states like Texas and Iowa support grid-scale wind power. We are addressing the problem here in Westborough with the Sustainable Westborough effort.

Beyond that, what are we as individuals willing to do about it? People worry that decreasing the carbon we generate somehow means sacrifice. Not true.

Let’s start with a simple fact that pound for pound, three times more CO2 is generated to “make” a pound of beef than to burn a gallon of gasoline (60 pounds vs. 20 pounds). Granted, refining crude oil to make a gallon of gasoline also produces CO2, but for conceptual purposes this exercise ought to give you an idea of how the choices we make can have an impact.

I am not telling you to change your diet to tofu, kale, beans and quinoa. I hate kale. A pound of chicken or pork requires a tenth of the CO2 that beef does. It’s also not hard to have a vegetarian dinner every now and then. You do it every time you have pasta.

Getting back to gasoline. The average car engine is 30 to 35% efficient at converting gasoline to useful power. The rest is lost to heat or friction. Many engines are even less efficient. If you have a 15-gallon fuel tank, that’s like pouring 9 gallons into a barrel and lighting it on fire.

An electric vehicle (EV) is the ultimate way to reduce your driving carbon footprint. However, a lot of us, including me, are not ready to go fully electric. In my case at least 75% of my driving is local. When I had to replace my car, I bought a plugin hybrid (PHEV) so 75% of my driving is now electric. My electric bill went up, but that’s offset by the gasoline I no longer buy.

New compact SUV PHEVs on the market get 50 to 100 mpg and can accelerate like a sports car. They are also eligible for the $7,500 federal tax rebate which can bring down the price to the range of an equivalent gas-powered model.

You also need to ask yourself how much car you need. If 70% of your driving is local, do you really need a 3 ton 4-wheel drive pickup truck or full-size SUV to go to the supermarket? I am not telling you to forgo a pickup if you really need it, but do you really need it? I'd love to have a truck. I just can't justify it.

Home heating and cooling (HVAC) is another area where we can reduce our carbon footprint. Massachusetts is now providing incentives to shift home HVAC systems from oil or gas to electric air-source heat pumps.

A heat pump is an electrically-powered system which transfers heat energy from outdoors to indoors for heating and vice versa for cooling. Heat pumps are more efficient than air conditioners, gas or oil-fired heating systems.

A question I get asked is why make your car and home electric if the electricity comes from fossil-fuel power plants. Won’t that just transfer the same carbon production from one place to another? Good question.

The answer is no. We already know that gasoline-powered cars convert 35% or less of the gasoline’s energy to power the vehicle. An oil burner is at best, about 80% efficient. A heat pump’s efficiency is 175 to 300% in comparison. So even if a power plant’s energy-conversion efficiency is 40%, the overall result of converting to electric is a large net removal of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Consider also that the amount of energy generated from wind and solar is steadily increasing, at both grid and individual scale.

Finally, if you cannot afford to do anything else, the best alternative energy is the energy you don’t use. Insulation, LED light bulbs, weatherizing - all these and more are pretty cheap and they make a difference. Not to mention saving you money. The MassSave program also subsidizes these simple measures.

So, if you want to do something about our climate emergency, you can. The alternatives exist. It’s a matter of choice.

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