Friday, August 15, 2008

Carbon-Free Homes

Photo courtesy Stephen Hren

Stephen and Rebekah Hren live the environmentalist's dream: Their home is carbon-free. Well, pretty much. The North Carolina couple fixed up an old house with a goal of getting it off fossil fuels. It's an interesting project, and one I wrote an article about for today's Globe and Mail. They wrote their experiences up in The Carbon-Free Home, a new book from Chelsea Green.

Much of what they did to their house is the sort of stuff that only homeowners can do, such as adding lots of insulation. But lots is also tenant-friendly, such as sealing cracks. One of the best ideas they had is to keep an "energy diary." That is, you look up the amount of energy each appliance consumes (including everything from lights to air conditioners, blenders, stoves, etc.) and then track how long each is on.

Do this for a week or two and you'll quickly see where the most electricity goes, and where you can easily adjust your lifestyle to most effectively save energy.

The book, which I enjoyed reading, is a great resource. It combines their own experiences with information about energy consumption and includes lots of projects that they've completed on their own house, as well as some that they're looking forward to tackling.

What makes the book tenant-friendly is a handy table right up front that lists a selection of projects. The table is a way to jump into projects fast, and shows difficulty levels and the relative value in terms of savings. But it also identifies which ones are tenant-friendly.

As for the carbon-free thing, I remain unconvinced about its feasibility in northern climates. Off-grid houses, whether the Hren's in North Carolina, or Anthony Ketchum's cottage in Ontario, tend to have wood-burning stoves for heat. An argument can be made that wood is carbon-neutral if harvested sustainable (new trees suck carbon in as it's released by burning the older ones), but that's only applicable over the long term. Also, despite newer, more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves, wood smoke still contributes to problems such as smog.

That said, these houses are really worth looking at. They might not be a complete solution to the world's energy problems, but if every house were as efficient, climate change would be much less of a behemoth to tackle.

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