Our Water Heaters Could Help Save the Wilderness

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Those of us who love spending time in the outdoors can’t help but see what the climate crisis is doing to our wilderness. We see how global heating is wreaking havoc on our forests, melting the glaciers in our mountains and drying up our lakes and rivers. 

But it’s harder to know what to do about it, as individuals. Given the enormity and urgency of the issue, what can we do that will make a difference? 

Many of us answer that question by recycling and trying to consume less, but here’s the bad news — these measures are not sufficient to solve the climate crisis. To make a difference, we must also focus on the biggest single contributor to climate change: burning fossil fuels to create the energy we use every day.

This big problem needs a big solution — transitioning to clean energy and away from coal, oil, natural gas and gasoline. The good news is that it is entirely possible and cost effective to do this and all of us have a critical role to play in this essential transition.

For anything we own that burns fossil fuels, there is a zero-emissions, high-performance alternative. At Electrify Now, an all-volunteer organization, we have helped hundreds of people eliminate fossil fuels in their lives. We break it down into three steps:

  1. Clean up your electric supply with renewable energy from the wind and sun.
  2. Electrify your home with high efficiency, high performance electric solutions.
  3. Electrify your ride with electric vehicles charged with clean energy.

By taking these steps, our energy dollars will create the solution: a new clean energy system that powers the world without carbon emissions. The alternative? Keep paying for dirty energy that is the source of the problem. Below, we spell out why these steps are so important and how you can join the clean energy movement. 

US sources of greenhouse gas emissions from US EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2019.

The big picture: Most global carbon emissions come from our energy system. Over the last 200 years, we have created a global energy system powered by fossil fuels to provide electricity, transportation, and heat on demand. Over 80% of heat-trapping carbon emissions in the world are produced by burning fossil fuels. Even in developing countries, the majority of emissions come from this same source. This system includes our own homes, our cars, and anything we own that burns fossil fuels. We can’t do without the benefits of plentiful energy — so we must find a way to meet our energy needs without fossil fuels.

The exciting news is that renewable energy from the wind and sun is now the cheapest way to generate electricity — cheaper than burning coal, oil, or gas. We can use that plentiful, low-cost clean electricity to power all our energy needs.

So, the challenge of our time, and perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, is how to transition our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewables, and to “electrify everything” as quickly as possible.

This transformation to clean electric power comes with amazing co-benefits: cleaner air, less pollution, more available fresh water, healthier people, and a stronger economy where we spend less money on energy. Because electric solutions perform better and are cheaper to operate, this transition is already beginning — but, as Bill McKibben says, “Climate change is a timed test. Winning slowly is the same as losing” — or, in other words, we’ve got to move really fast.

This is where our homes and our water heaters come in. Most homes in the U.S. produce over 20 tons of carbon emissions every year from the energy we purchase — our electricity, our natural gas, and the fuel for our cars. By electrifying our lives, we can entirely eliminate those emissions without compromising our way of living. This dramatically reduces our personal carbon emissions and also builds our part of a new clean energy system to replace the one that has caused so much damage. Here is how to do it:

The electricity to power a typical home will produce 3–5 tons of carbon emissions, but it is possible to get 100% clean renewable electricity today and save money on electric bills.
  1. The easiest and most important step: clean up your electric supply. Most homes produce 3-5 tons of carbon emissions per year just from the electricity we consume. Many states have enacted laws to clean up the grid, but you don’t have to wait for clean energy.

The best solution is to subscribe to a Community Solar project if that is available in your state. Whether you rent or own your home, you will get the benefit of clean solar energy without any upfront costs. In many states this actually lowers your energy bills. If Community Solar is not available to you, sign up for a Green Power Plan from your utility — this will usually cost a few extra dollars per month. Or, if your home is suitable for it, install solar panels on your roof and dramatically reduce your electric bill.

Either of these options, or a combination of them, will ensure that you have 100% clean energy so that everything you power with electricity will create zero carbon emissions. Every time you plug something into your electric sockets, imagine the solar panels and wind turbines collecting clean energy and powering your life.

  1. Get off “natural” gas and electrify your home. Next, think about all the items in your home that consume fossil fuels. Furnaces and water heaters are the two largest energy hogs in most homes. A home heated with natural gas produces 5–11 tons of emissions per year.

Natural gas is methane — a potent greenhouse gas. Burning methane is a leading source of air pollution and produces one quarter of the carbon emissions in this country. The gas utilities heavily advertise so-called “renewable natural gas” — but experts agree this expensive technology cannot meaningfully reduce carbon emissions. The best thing we can all do is get off the gas completely and as soon as possible.

If your gas furnace is more than 12 years old, or if you just want to slash your carbon emissions, you can replace it with a high-efficiency electric heat pump. Most people are unfamiliar with this technology, but people in Asia and Europe have been heating their homes reliably this way for generations even in cold climates. A heat pump will keep your home warm, and the same device cools your home in the summer — gas furnaces can’t do that!

Heat pumps produce far fewer carbon emissions than gas heating everywhere in the US. Because they are so efficient, transitioning to a heat pump can reduce utility bills too. Powered with clean electricity, you will heat and cool your home with zero carbon emissions.

Electric heat pump water heaters are the most energy efficient, the lowest cost to operate, and will avoid 1-3 tons of carbon emissions per year when they are powered with clean electricity. Heat pumps can also replace gas furnaces to heat and cool your home and avoid an additional 4–8 tons per year.

Water heaters are the second biggest energy consumer in most homes. If your water heater is more than 5 years old, consider replacing it with a heat pump water heater. These devices use 3–5 times less energy than other technologies, so they are cheaper to operate. Even tankless water heaters can’t achieve this level of efficiency. These devices look just like standard water heaters but produce around ¼ of the carbon emissions. With clean electricity, your heat pump water heater will deliver all the hot water you need with zero carbon emissions, so your hot bath will feel even better.

Gas stoves, gas fireplaces, propane barbecues, and our gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and chainsaws also produce carbon emissions and air pollution. Gas stoves produce dangerous indoor air pollutants which can cause asthma — especially in children. Electric induction stoves do not produce those pollutants and are faster to heat, offer more control, and are easier to keep clean than gas ranges. We can replace all our dirty, gas-burning devices with electric alternatives which produce no air pollution, require virtually no maintenance or fuel refills, are quieter and easier to use and cheaper to operate.

An electric car will travel over 4 times farther than a similar-sized gasoline-powered car for the same fuel cost. An EV charged with renewable electricity produces zero emissions compared to 4–8 tons of carbon emissions per year for a gas car.
  1. Electrify your ride and charge it with clean energy. We count on our automobiles to get us into the outdoors. But a typical car will produce 4–8 tons of heat-trapping emissions every year. Electric vehicles (EVs) produce far fewer total lifecycle emissions than gas cars — even when accounting for manufacturing the batteries. The Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that a gas car in the US would have to get over 88 miles per gallon to produce fewer emissions than an EV. When charged with renewable energy, EVs produce zero emissions.

The costs of electric vehicles are dropping, range is increasing, and charging infrastructure is growing every day. Although sticker prices look high, the 5-year total cost of ownership of an EV is thousands of dollars lower than a comparable gas car, because fuel and maintenance costs are dramatically lower. If you know anyone who has an EV, ask them how they like it — they will rave about how fun they are to drive and how cheap they are to run. The next time you visit a busy trailhead or the ski slopes, imagine the parking lot filled with electric cars and envision all the emissions that would be avoided that way.

These solutions — renewable energy, heat pumps, electric vehicles, and other electric solutions — are capable of eliminating the majority of global carbon emissions. Whenever a furnace or water heater or gas-burning car is replaced with a clean electric alternative, it builds a piece of our new clean energy system and helps slow devastating climate impacts.

The more people know about these amazing products and the sooner we adopt them in our lives, the more likely we will be to protect ourselves and our wild spaces from climate change. That is why we created Electrify Now — to provide information to help everyone to take these high-impact actions as soon as possible. 

All of us who love spending time outdoors find it natural to want to protect our wild places. It makes sense to us to “leave no trace” so our beloved outdoors stays pure and unspoiled. Eliminating the devastating impacts of fossil fuels is an essential part of this “leave no trace” ethos. Building a better, clean energy system is the great mission of our time to save the forests and mountains and ensure an inhabitable planet for all humanity.

Electrify Now is a volunteer, not for profit organization. Please visit our website: electrifynow.net for more information and tips on how to take these actions. Our Take Action/Discount page has helpful resources on each action. Please share this information with your friends and family.

All images are courtesy of Barb Burwell

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