We are running out of time. The most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clear that we have only a few decades left to completely stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas, if we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Most of us would like to leave the earth a better place than we found it, but don’t know how to help.
Fortunately, the first steps are easy. It starts with the efficiency of our homes and buildings. These are responsible for the biggest share of our total emissions, and there is huge room for improvement.
At The McGillis School, we have worked to minimize our footprint. We generate part of our electricity with a solar array, paid for by Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Program. Our students help track the building’s electricity use as part of our Sustainable Pathways curriculum, and we are the first LEED Gold school building in Utah. Given all that, we assumed that our possible improvements would be small. We could not have been more wrong.
A few years ago we experienced an unexplained period of very high electricity bills. The only troubleshooting tool we had to solve this was the electric meter. Despite visits from our mechanical contractor, we were unable to figure out where we were using the excess power.
We finally purchased an electricity monitoring system from Creative Energies. This system allows us to track the electricity use of the whole building and at each of the 12 circuit breaker boxes within the building. With that information, it quickly became clear that the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system (HVAC) was the place to look for issues.
We hired a building efficiency engineer from CCI Mechanical to do a complete tuneup, known as "retrocommissioning," of our HVAC systems, even though the machinery is only four years old. Today’s building control systems are much more complex than a simple thermostat, with hundreds of possible adjustments. Programming errors or mechanical failures such as a stuck valve often don’t lead to any noticeable change in the building temperature. They just show up in the bills. Most of us simply pay the bills without question.
After the retrocommissioning, both our electricity and natural gas use have dropped by half. We are saving $20,000 a year, and all of our costs for the monitoring system and the HVAC work will be paid for in savings in less than a year. Most importantly, we are significantly reducing our impact on the environment.
Most buildings have issues like these that go unnoticed. Older buildings with aging equipment can have even more potential savings.
Our homes have just as many opportunities for savings. As an example, LED light bulbs seem expensive at $12 each, but they typically pay for themselves in electricity savings in less than three years. The best way to optimize a home is to pay for a home energy audit, which will find the most cost effective steps.
Improving the energy efficiency of homes and buildings is not only easy, it’s profitable. Even those who are still skeptical about the science behind climate change can be persuaded by simple economics.
The next steps after this will be more difficult, but we have done harder things before. We will need to cut our use of fossil fuels not by half, but to zero. Fortunately, we already have all the technology and the resources we need to do this cost-effectively.
Tom Moyer is a mechanical engineer with HDT robotics and a science teacher at the McGillis School.
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