Energy Conservation

Energy conservation isn't sexy, but in the short term it's the best investment you could make, both for reducing greenhouse gases, and also often for increasing profits. There are two complimentary ways to conserve energy, the first is through the use of energy-efficient technologies, the second through changing our habits so that we use less energy. Both are necessary.

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by sector of the economyTransportation

Globally, about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. In some industrialized nations transport is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, for instance in the United States it accounts for about one third of greenhouse gas emissions, and it adds up to one quarter of Canadian emissions. In the European Union, transport is one of the fastest growing sources of emissions, and threatens to undermine European reductions in other sectors. Part of the reason for the enormous energy consumption of transport, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, is the way society is organized - patterns of trade and urban development commit us to inefficiencies in transport which have been subsidized by the historically low cost of oil. Deep-seated changes in the way we build our infrastructure and run our economy are needed. The other inefficiency in our transport system comes from the internal combustion engine, which wastes most of the heat from the fuel as heat or noise. In today's vehicles, only about 13% of the energy from the fuel actually reaches the wheels. And in a single-occupant vehicle, only about 1% of the fuel-energy is actually moving the driver. The good news is that the technology exists today to make vehicles that are vastly more efficient than the ones we are driving. Using advanced materials such as carbon fibres, it is possible to make a car far lighter, and therefore more fuel efficient, without compromising safety. And, while fuel cells have advanced greatly over the past decade, battery technology has come even further, and a number of high performance electric cars are already on the market this year, and more will be coming over the next few years. Electric cars eliminate much of the waste energy that occurs with internal combustion engines.

Food and Agriculture

When the soviet union collapsed in 1991, one of the results was that the small island nation of Cuba was suddenly cut off from its largest trading partner, and its imports of petroleum suddenly dropped by more than half. One of the first things to collapse was Cuba's agricultural sector. Cuba adapted to the suddenly limited resources by increasing urban agriculture and decreasing transportation distances, by decreasing the size of farms and increasing labour by humans and animals over large machinery, and by going organic. Cuba went from a farming system that was almost entirely conventional modern agriculture, with inputs of fertilizers and pesticides that actually surpassed the United States, to 80% organic farms, in only a decade. If we want to learn how to increase efficiency and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from our farms, we might learn from Cuba. Consider the concept of a "ratio of energy" for food - this is the balance between the energy content of a food to the energy inputs. This ratio compares the calories contained in a food to all the energy used to grow, process, package and distribute the food product. The energy ratio (energy out/energy in) has dropped from being close to 100 for traditional pre-industrial food to less than 1 for most of the food products in industrialized countries today - meaning for every calorie in the food we now eat, we use the equivalent of a calorie of energy to produce it. This is because energy inputs, mostly oil and natural gas, have increased dramatically, we are essentially "eating oil". Apart from the inputs needed to grow food, let's take a look at where our food comes from. One comparison between a shopping basket of food at a local supermarket in Toronto, and the same food bought at the farmers' market found that the food at the farmer's market had traveled an average of 101 km to reach the consumer, while the supermarket produce had traveled an average of 5,364 km to reach the consumer. How does this affect global warming? As an extreme example, transporting half a kilo of fresh New Zealand lamb to Toronto by plane produces over 8 kilograms of CO2, as compared with 7 grams of CO2 produced from trucking the meat in from Flamborough, Ontario (about one thousandth as much).

A strawbale house after plasteringGreen Building

In Canada, heating accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Although we think that in Canada's cold climate we need to use this energy, in fact at least half of this, and probably much more, could be saved by building efficient, highly insulated buildings that take full advantage of the sun's radiation in winter. If well designed, these houses would also be cooler in summer.

In building an efficient house you must consider design, as well as materials and construction techniques. Maximizing the capture of the sun's energy in winter and minimizing it in summer is called passive solar design. The key to passive solar design is efficient windows that are placed and oriented in the house to capture the maximum winter sun. However, it's important to realize that even in passive solar design windows rarely gain more energy in the day than they lose at night.

Building techniques and materials for high efficiency buildings vary greatly - these may range from conventional double-studded walls and insulation, to foam blocks, to reclaimed materials such as tires, to natural building materials such as straw bales. Reclaimed and natural materials offer the added benefits of substantially reducing green house gas emissions produced in making the materials needed to build your home.

Retrofit of old buildings

Old buildings offer great opportunities for improving energy efficiency. These include insulating walls, sealing cracks, replacing old doors and windows, upgrading heating systems, etc. These measures and others can increase the efficiency of a house by as much as 50%.

Home energy conservation how-to guides

Check out the Household solutions from Rocky Mountain Institute (PDF), or Home energy checklist for ideas.