Choosing Renewable Energy

Pick alternative sources of energy like geothermal, wind, or smart grid systems to cut down your carbon footprint.

Healthy Solutions

Spend enough time pondering climate change, and the magnitude of the challenge can begin to overwhelm anyone. There’s a daunting array of numbers and trends, choices and consequences. Much of what we do as modern humans contributes to the problem, little by little by little. Our appetite for high-carbon energy has unquestionably put the world and its inhabitants at risk, and we appear to be hurtling toward a very unsettling conclusion. But we must not lose sight of a very simple and reassuring fact: we have already invented virtually everything we need to get us out of this crisis. The job won’t be easy, and we could certainly use a few more clever tools. But we can build a low-­carbon society. Indeed, it’s already happening.

Cover courtesy of University of California Press

In 1999, David Riecks and Anna Barnes faced a dilemma familiar to many homeowners. Barnes was working at home as an editor and Web designer, but their 1,200-­square-­foot house in Champaign, Illinois, lacked adequate air conditioning to ward off the stifling summer heat. Their furnace had seen better days. Any way they looked at it, they were about to spend a lot of money. They could have easily invested in a high efficiency conventional furnace and air conditioner and felt comfortable with their choices. Instead, they went underground, installing a ground source heat pump.

Just a few feet below the ground, the earth’s temperature remains a nearly constant 13°C (55°F). The heat pump taps this natural energy source, reaching as far as 150 feet down with plastic tubing with a circumference about that of a garden hose. A nontoxic liquid that works like antifreeze cycles through the tubing, slowly attaining the temperature of the surrounding earth. When the weather is cool, the heat pump uses electrical compressors to deliver that underground heat into the house, helping to provide heat and hot water. In the summer, the system runs in reverse, removing heat from the house and helping to provide free air-­conditioning.

Adding a traditional central cooling system might have doubled their utility bills; instead, Barnes and Riecks estimate that they’ve saved hundreds of dollars in heating expenses per year. While ground source systems cost more to install than a typical furnace or central air conditioner, they typically save buyers enough on their power bills to pay for themselves within three to seven years. Such savings have helped sell more than a million ground source heat pumps in the United States and a similar number in China, reports James Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.

Choosing a more efficient heating and cooling system simply made sense to Barnes and Riecks, just like riding their bikes or buying local produce. “I think it’s a personal responsibility,” Barnes said. “Just like milk does not magically get into a milk carton, electricity just doesn’t jump into a light switch. It’s not lost on us that every Btu that we’re buying is coming from coal.” And she knows that coal carries a heavy carbon price. “Everything has a cost. It’s a matter of accepting your responsibility for that cost.”

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