MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Hey there. Maddie Sofia here with NPR correspondent Dan Charles. Hi, Dan.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, Maddie. Maddie, you know how last week my colleagues Lauren Sommer and Becky Hersher were on here talking about the Biden administration's promise that by 2030, the U.S. will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels?
SOFIA: Yeah. They said that's going to take a lot of work, Dan.
CHARLES: Big companies are going to have to really change the way they do business. But there are things that regular people can do in how we get around, how we heat and cool our homes.
SOFIA: Yeah, I mean, last month, you and I talked about how to make homes more efficient by using heat pumps, that kind of stuff.
CHARLES: I have been thinking so much about this, about heat pumps and other things that people can do in their homes ever since a particular day. Last summer, I was on a street in Brooklyn with Donnel Baird. He runs a company called BlocPower. And we were looking at a row of brownstones, and Donnel was explaining that buildings have a carbon footprint. Most of them here, everywhere - they run on fossil fuels of some kind.
DONNEL BAIRD: The trick is, how do you move these buildings off of fossil fuels? How do you move into clean energy?
CHARLES: And he pointed toward one building where they'd done it. They had new electric heating and cooling systems. There were solar panels on the roof. He said that this building's carbon emissions had dropped by 40%.
CHARLES: And ever since that day, I have been on a mission to see if it's possible to cut the greenhouse emissions from my own house. I've gotten a little obsessed. It's also been a lot of fun.
SOFIA: So, Dan, you're telling me you're bringing us the results of your obsession today...
CHARLES: I am.
SOFIA: ...Is what you're saying (laughter)?
CHARLES: I chronicled my quest, and I talked to experts for our friends at LIFE KIT. And I want to share that with you today.
SOFIA: So today on the show, Dan Charles in the house - literally, your house. Whether you live in an apartment building or a condo or a big old house, we've got tips for how to cut those greenhouse gas emissions in big ways, like putting solar on your roof or ripping out that gas furnace.
CHARLES: And also in small ways - ever heard of a smart power strip?
SOFIA: This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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CHARLES: OK, let's start with some basics - why our homes matter in the big picture of climate change. Nobody cares more about this than Donnel Baird, the BlocPower CEO we met earlier.
BAIRD: Buildings in the United States are responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. If you want to do something about climate change, your home is among the most important places to look.
CHARLES: Maybe it's hard to imagine a house releasing greenhouse gases just sitting there. But think about your daily routine. You stumble out of bed in the morning, turn on the lights, turn up the thermostat, take a shower, make some coffee or toast. The heat and the hot water may come from a furnace or a water heater that burn gas. They release carbon dioxide straight into the air - other kinds of pollution, too, actually. The lights and the coffee maker and the computer run on electricity, and that comes from power plants, most of which are still burning coal and gas. You can actually look at your electric bill and calculate those emissions.
There are big and expensive changes you can make, and we'll get to those, but here is takeaway No. 1. There are simple and cheap ways to trim that carbon footprint. They all pretty much do the same thing. They save energy. That is where we're going to begin with Rohini Srivastava. She's an architect and a senior researcher with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
ROHINI SRIVASTAVA: I would start off with heating and cooling my space smartly. So regardless if you are a homeowner or a renter, you still have control over the thermostat.
CHARLES: How you set a thermostat can be a really personal thing, of course, which Srivastava is very aware of. She lives in Pittsburgh now, but she grew up in a hot climate in India.
SRIVASTAVA: So I'm used to more swings in temperature. I can tolerate a much higher temperature. So for me, you know, in summers, I can manage. I just crack open the window, and I sit next to it. I use my blinds more and more. We have these fence doors. I just open them. And there's cross-ventilation, things that we used to do back home - I still do them here.
CHARLES: And when it's cold, she says, see if you can just let the house get a little cooler at night and use more blankets instead. During the day, open the blinds. Let the sun help heat the house. By the way, if you like technology, there are so-called smart thermostats that'll help you with this. You can program them for different temperatures day and night so you don't have to do it yourself all the time.
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CHARLES: OK, next step, also pretty simple - sometimes there are cracks and holes around the house where air is leaking in. This is ventilation you really don't want. It makes your heater or your air conditioner work harder and wastes energy.
SRIVASTAVA: Start looking at your windows, doors. Is your house leaking? You know, sometimes if you go near a door, there's a draft coming.
CHARLES: Fixing these things does require a little work, but you can probably do it just with a little advice from somebody at your local hardware store - maybe some caulking around a window frame or where the house sits on its foundation, maybe putting weatherstripping around a door or attaching what's called a door sweep on the bottom of a door. Keep air from blowing in.
Finally, two more things in the quick and easy category - if you have old-style incandescent light bulbs in your house, go buy some LED lights instead. They make a real difference. And a lot of electronic devices these days just sit there using a small amount of power, even when you're not using them - like, all night long. Televisions, cable boxes, laptop computers and screens and printers - it all adds up. So you can plug them all into a power strip that you switch off every evening or even a so-called smart power strip.
SRIVASTAVA: ...Which kind of automatically switches off at a certain point. At least, I've done that with my television.
CHARLES: Doing all these things could cut your energy use by 10% or 20%, although that will vary a lot, depending on what your home is like. So that's step one. Just use less energy.
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CHARLES: Takeaway No. 2, take a really close look at those big machines that heat and cool your home and heat your water. This is where Donnel Baird gets kind of excited.
BAIRD: You want to replace your heating system, your air conditioning system, your hot water tank that produces hot water for cooking and showering. You want to move those systems from fossil fuel equipment to 100% electric.
CHARLES: Just to be clear here, going all electric doesn't cut your carbon footprint to zero right away if you're getting a lot of your electricity from coal or gas. But eventually, it could because the plan is more and more of our electricity will come from zero-carbon sources like solar and wind and hydroelectric dams or nuclear.
Before we get into the details of these equipment changes, a lot of people face a big question. What if you don't own your building? Maybe you're renting an apartment. You don't have the power to start messing with your heating system. Or you have a condo, and that boiler in the basement's run by the condo association. What do you do then? It's a real obstacle, but not insurmountable. Our Takeaway No. 3 - even renters and condo owners have options. For instance, if you're paying your own utilities in a lot of states - California, New York, most of the Northeast - you often have some control over where that electricity comes from.
BAIRD: The very first thing you can do is you can call your local utility company, and you can let them know that you want your electricity to come from 100% clean energy.
CHARLES: Sometimes it's a separate company that offers this. They'll buy wind or solar power and add it to the grid for you to use. You may not be able to put solar panels on your own roof, but in a lot of states, you can buy a share in a solar project nearby. It's called community solar. You can do a little Googling and figure out if that's an option. As for the systems in your building, don't give up right away.
BAIRD: If you live in an apartment or a condo, first of all, we want you to open up a conversation with the owner and/or manager of your building about how healthy the building is and how green that building is. And are they saving you enough money by using modern green energy technologies that can reduce your monthly utility bill?
CHARLES: And to help you do this, to educate yourself about what might be possible in your building, BlocPower has a website.
BAIRD: We've built out a software platform that allows these folks to search for their building and receive a set of sustainability recommendations about the list of things they can do in their building.
CHARLES: You might have to poke around your building a little bit first. The form asks things like how many units there are, what kind of energy you're using for different things like hot water.
BAIRD: So we've rolled out our platform across a couple of hundred cities, about 55% of the U.S., and hopefully this spring we will cover the entire United States.
CHARLES: Really? OK.
BAIRD: It's time to go green, Dan. We don't have time to screw around with this stuff.
CHARLES: Yeah. So if you're in a condo, try to, you know, run for the condo board.
BAIRD: Definitely. The condo board is pretty miserable, but it's worth it if you can take your whole building off of fossil fuels and save a bunch of money. You'll be a hero.
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CHARLES: The website where you can get these sustainability recommendations is blocpower - that's B-L-O-C power.io. And since I talked to Donnel, it's grown, and now it does cover the whole U.S. Of course, you can use this if you're a homeowner too. One other thing, by the way - if you're living in an apartment building, you're already way ahead of the game when it comes to cutting your carbon footprint because it takes so much less energy in general to heat an apartment compared to a freestanding home. So pat yourself on the back.
Anyway, let's say you do have the power to make these changes. Maybe you own a house. Maybe you're living in your parents' basement, and you've talked them into trying this. As you can imagine, some of these changes are big-ticket items.
One example - let's say you're replacing your old gas furnace and your central air conditioning unit with an electric heat pump. Heat pumps work a little bit like refrigerators. They have a compressor, and they move heat around. They'll heat your home in winter, and they'll cool it in the summer. A central heat pump can heat and cool the whole house, but there are smaller ones that'll do it for just part of the house or for individual apartments.
They cost thousands of dollars. You'll get some of that money back through lower utility bills, and the good ones will get you a tax break worth a few hundred dollars. And in lots of places - Colorado, Minnesota, plenty of others - local utilities will throw in a few hundred dollars, too. But this is a complicated decision, and maybe you need some help figuring out exactly what makes sense to do in your particular house. So Takeaway No. 4, get some professional help.
SRIVASTAVA: If your local utility is offering rebates or any kind of incentives, they might have recommendations for contractors who can come in and kind of help you with not only understanding what's going on, but also what's the best option out there. And they can guide you through that process.
CHARLES: You might want to call in a home energy auditor. Some places, you can get one of these energy audits for very little money because local governments or utilities cover a lot of the cost. Other places, you might have to pay it yourself - comes to about $400 or $500. When you look for one, do a little research. See if they're certified by a reputable organization - for instance, by the Building Performance Institute.
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CHARLES: Cheng Vang trains energy auditors. He works with the Center for Energy and Environment in St. Paul, Minn.
CHENG VANG: The checklist usually is look at your attic, see what kind of insulation they have, how much insulation they have and what type of insulation they have, looking for air leaks in your attic from inside space through that ceiling, sealing those up, making sure that we try to keep all that hot air that you spent money to heat inside your home longer.
CHARLES: An auditor will check all your systems - the water heater, air conditioning, furnace - see how efficient they are. And they'll do what's called a blower door test. An energy auditor did this in my house. We closed all the windows in the house, and then he set up this contraption that covered the opening for the front door. And in it there was a powerful fan that sucked air out of the house.
VANG: When you run that blower door test, then that's when the fun happens, I tell people (laughter). Then you can walk around the house to look for air leaks around windows, doors, even outlets.
CHARLES: You're like a house detective.
VANG: Yeah. Oh, yeah. If you like to do investigation work, energy auditor is great because then you can try to figure out what's going on.
CHARLES: And then your energy auditor can lay out various options like sealing the leaks, putting in better insulation. Insulation's tricky. You can actually seal up a house too tightly and end up with unhealthy air. They'll explain that. Maybe they'll suggest replacing a furnace or a gas water heater with an electric heat pump. Sometimes they'll go further and give you a rough estimate for how much each thing would cost and run a little model that predicts how much it'll save you in utility bills or greenhouse emissions.
VANG: Some homeowners are really money-based to where - oh, I'm doing this because I want to save money. Some homeowners do it because of their carbon footprint. They want to say, I want to do this because I want to shrink my carbon footprint.
CHARLES: Now, if you start replacing appliances, you'll be dealing with heating and air conditioning contractors. And it's worth shopping around a little bit because some contractors are just more comfortable installing what they've always installed, like another gas furnace. Find one that's just as familiar with new technology, like high-efficiency heat pumps.
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CHARLES: Finally, Takeaway No. 5, check out whether solar makes sense. You know, rooftop solar may seem really cutting-edge, but companies have been doing this for quite a while now. Donnel Baird says lots of them have the whole routine down.
BAIRD: They use satellite imagery to look at your roof. Using satellite photography, they can, you know, place virtual solar panels on your roof and see if you have a tree that's too close to the building that's going to, you know, shade part of the solar panel. And what time of day is that tree going to throw the shadow on the roof? So solar installation is very, very sophisticated and really straightforward. And so it's one of the simpler things you can do.
CHARLES: Whether these systems are affordable for you will vary a lot depending on what state you're in. Different places offer very different financial incentives, but a solar company will be able to draw up a proposal that lays all that out. And remember, there is also that option we mentioned of community solar, buying into a project nearby.
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CHARLES: After I met Donnel Baird on that street in Brooklyn, I did a lot of this - the energy audit, replacing appliances. I was lucky in a lot of ways. Bringing in the heat pump made sense for me because my central air unit was old and needed replacing soon anyway - same with the gas water heater. And I live in Washington, D.C., which has some of the most generous subsidies in the country for rooftop solar.
And in the end, it actually worked. The gas furnace is still there, but it's just a backup now. It only comes on when the weather gets really cold. Everything else in the house is electric, and it looks like the solar panels on our roof will generate as much electricity over the course of a year as what we consume. So on balance, almost zero greenhouse emissions, which feels pretty great.
SOFIA: All right, Dan Charles, thank you for taking us on that little journey. I'm about to snatch up one of those smart power strips, I'll tell you that much.
CHARLES: You are welcome, Maddie. LIFE KIT also has episodes about how to reduce food waste, even how to talk to kids about climate change. And, of course, keep listening to SHORT WAVE for all your daily science needs.
SOFIA: This episode was produced for SHORT WAVE by Brit Hanson, Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan, edited by Gisele Grayson and Meghan Keane, and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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