Cutting Carbon Locally

December 2, 2021
King County Housing Authority
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

I volunteered to help with my town’s energy and carbon efforts, starting with an inventory of fossil fuel use. We didn’t need to count the gallons of gasoline to ensure the town could pay its bills in the past, so we didn’t track the quantities of fuel it used, just the costs. That is going to change.

Change is needed for a few things to transition to clean energy and guarantee deep carbon reductions. Reaching our carbon reduction goals will require that we see, understand, and change the hidden (or not so hidden) infrastructure that surrounds us. I’ve been thinking about this and working on it. While my faith organization is talking about “ethical eating,” my inner voice is asking, “What about ethical heating?” That is, what are the broader implications of the choices we make about home heating and other energy use?

In reading history and the news, I have come to learn that my home heating has been supported by our military budget, even the outcome of our wars, which have emphasized fossil fuel extraction on other continents. Exploiting fossil fuel in the United States today still involves unfunded coal miner health care and poorly regulated hydraulic fracking of shale for methane gas.

Energy use at home relies on energy infrastructure that deserves a closer look. I have oil stored in my garage (in my car’s gas tank) and in my basement (oil-burning furnace, common in the Northeast). While using an electric car and adding an efficient wood stove has helped me reduce my oil use, I haven’t zeroed it out. My neighbors’ homes have “natural” gas (i.e. methane) piped in from gas producing wells originally more than 1,500 miles away in the Gulf Coast and taken from the shale fields more than 500 miles away. The pipes are underground, but we can see the cleared routes through the woods and we can smell the leaks in the pipes under our streets. Keep in mind, the gas industry is always willing and usually able to build new pipelines.

Our goal for carbon reduction is “green the grid, and electrify everything.” Read that as solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars everywhere. Much of this new hardware is distinctly more efficient than the old stuff: Heat pumps do two to three times more with the energy than a gas or oil furnace, electric vehicles have great efficiency, and you know about LED light bulbs.

Converting to all electric everything, though, needs widespread upgrade of electricity delivery system, i.e. the grid. We can spend less on the grid and more on living comfortably by making insulation and weatherization of our buildings a top priority, which also brings benefits and savings to people living in poorly maintained housing.

State and local energy transition to-do list

To supply clean energy for electrification, town and state government policies need to support new clean energy infrastructure. We have to build replacements to kick our fossil fuel addiction. Because renewable energy, transmission and energy storage are absolutely vital to fighting climate change, official approvals for building this new infrastructure are needed.

Shifting energy supplies from imported or fracked fossil fuel to local renewable energy means thinking about energy differently. Understanding that energy storage and transport for fossil fuel are everywhere is a good first step to recognizing the change we need to make. Electricity storage (i.e., batteries) and transmission must be built and become common, acceptable infrastructure. We can apply better siting practices and safety features than were used in our fossil fuel systems. We can welcome the cleaner air at the same time we acknowledge there will be changes to our built environment. But we need those changes.

Renewable energy and energy storage can be as widespread as our energy needs require. Many rooftops and parking lots can and do already host solar panels. With upgraded grid connections, these can replace underground oil storage tanks. With well-sited energy storage, we can retire and remove the most polluting fossil fuel-burning equipment that has been in our communities for decades. We can trade air pollution, gas leaks and oil contamination and choose wind, solar, transmission and batteries.

Energy storage is real for clean energy

The challenge of matching energy production and energy use has always existed. Oil is stored at every step in the delivery chain, including in my basement. Methane (“natural gas”) storage was integrated into pipelines so that when the pipelines were owned by monopolies, gas storage costs were included in the cost of gas delivery.

The prospects for decarbonization of our economy are greatly boosted by the declining cost of electricity storage. Around the world, battery energy storage is increasingly used to replace fossil fuel burned in old power plants.

Some things are needed

Energy infrastructure and home energy use need investments for maintenance and replacement. Pretending that there’s no need to do anything is not a strategy, especially with carbon emissions. Take a fresh look: We can get serious about investing in our buildings once we have the attention of owners of old housing stock and commercial buildings. We can argue to end the subsidies and preferences that the fossil industry has established for itself. And we can modernize, economize and decarbonize. Grid upgrades using batteries and transmission with renewable energy are the environmental, economic and moral way forward.