Household Energy Transition Guide for the Lansing Area
Household energy use is a substantial part of US greenhouse gas emissions. If we include the natural gas we use in our homes, the generation of electricity we use, and our cars, household energy use is up to a third of US emissions (see the blue section in the chart below). Just the natural gas and electricity we use in our homes produces more emissions than most countries (even industrialized nations like Germany!).
Tackling US household emissions is a big task, but it can also make our homes healthier, more comfortable and more affordable. This guide can help you start on this project. It might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be done all at once. Taking the steps described below can make it manageable and provide you with the benefits of decarbonization while decreasing your impact on the climate
(Adapted from the US EPA website data, and reanalyzed with more detail on end use)
You can read this guide from beginning to end, starting with Step 1, or you can use the links below to jump to the sections that most interest you.
Step 1: Assess your household energy use
How do you heat your home? Cool your home? Heat water? Cook? How many gallons of gasoline do you buy each year?
Making a basic assessment of your energy use is the first step to changing your energy use.
Start by looking at your utility bills. How many Kwh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity do you buy each year? How many Mcfs (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas? Make a note of which parts of your home use which sources of energy.
If you want to assess the whole picture, use the web tool Greenhouse. There you can enter your household energy information and see how much energy it is in total (converted to a single unit) as well as what your current carbon footprint is from your energy use.
You will need your annual electricity usage in Kwh, your annual natural gas usage in Mcfs, and the mileage for each of your cars.
The website will also help you see how your energy profile will change with a switch to an electric vehicle or adding solar panels to your roof.
The rest of this guide will help you make decisions on how to shift your energy usage, so that it is more affordable, healthier, and better for the planet.
Step 2: Assess your electrical supply and your circuit breaker box/electrical panel
A central task for household decarbonization is to shift away from natural gas (or oil) to electricity. Preparing your household to electrify energy functions makes all the other transitions easier.
Assess your current electricity service. Is it 100 amps, or 200 amps? If 100 amps, you will likely need to upgrade it to 200 amps. You will also need to be sure that the circuit breaker/electric panel has enough slots in it to handle the new electric appliances.
The good news is that you will likely only need to do this once. Talk with your electrician about plans to electrify your household, so that they can help you prepare for it.
Step 3: Address health and safety risks
Some uses of natural gas in our homes can be dangerous for our health. Is a gas appliance leaking currently? Is a gas appliance not properly vented so that combustion gasses do not safely leave the home? Is there a gas stove without a strong ventilation system that can be used when cooking?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, immediate action is needed for the health and safety of your household.
Many homeowners understand the risks of leaking natural gas (which comes with a rotten egg smell) or from improperly vented hot water tanks or furnaces (which bring risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, an odorless and deadly gas). The problem of gas stoves is a more recent discovery, one that has surprised many experts with how problematic it can be.
The good news is that all of these gas appliances can be replaced with electric appliances. And, with electric appliances, one does not need to worry about ventilation for combustion gases, as there are none.
In the next section, we provide a guide for how to replace gas appliances with electric ones.
Step 4: Make a replacement plan
All of our household appliances and cars will likely need to be replaced by 2040. It is very important that when we need to replace our existing household energy components, we do it wisely. Here are some options for the main parts of home energy systems and what to consider when replacing them.
Whether you need to replace something now, or are making a plan for the future, assess which options for replacement will work for you. Rebates for many replacements are available from BWL as are tax credits from the federal government.
Home heating and cooling
Electrifying the heating and cooling system or HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system can have major benefits for a home.
In general, the best replacement for current systems in our area is a ductless heat pump system. A heat pump is basically a reversible refrigerator—it moves heat from one space to another. When it is winter, it moves heat from the outside to the inside (yes there is heat even in winter air). When it is summer, it moves heat from the inside to the outside, cooling the home.
A ductless system moves the heat through a fluid that can heat or cool any space through an air handler in a room. Multiple air handlers can be used with an external unit, and the different parts of a home can be heated and cooled (using a zone system). No air ducts need to be added to a house for this system.
For homes with electric resistance heating (e.g. electric baseboards) or radiator based heating, ductless heat pumps offer major gains in efficiency and the ability to cool a home in summer. These systems can make such homes more affordable (lowering energy bills) and more comfortable (adding cooling capacity). These systems work well even in very cold climates.
For houses with air ducts, heat pumps can still be added for use with the ducted system. The heat pump can cool the house in the summer (and be the primary air conditioner) and heat the house in the fall and spring. In the winter, with a ducted system (which is less efficient than a ductless system), houses in our areas often need an additional source of heat. Talk with your heating and cooling contractor about what might work well with your home. You can find contractors who work with these systems through Michigan Saves, a nonprofit green bank.
The best option for a cooking appliance is an induction stove. An induction stove runs on electricity and uses magnets to heat the pan directly. No heat is lost between the stove and the pan because the stove does not get hot! This makes the induction stove both very efficient and safer than traditional stoves.
In addition, the induction stove is able to both very quickly heat and rapidly change the temperature of pans. This allows cooks to get the temperature control they love with gas, but without the emissions from the gas stove.
Induction stoves may require new cookware. Only pots and pans that respond to magnets will work. If a refrigerator magnet sticks to the bottom of the pot, it will work. If not, it will need to be replaced with an induction-ready pot.
Depending on one’s home, there are several different ways to effectively and cleanly heat water.
One can pursue a tankless hot water system (where water is heated instantly and continuously only when one needs it) or a tanked hot water system.
Electric tankless systems are good options where one only occasionally needs hot water. They can only heat so much water at once, so be sure to have them sized to what the maximal flow rate is for your household. They can also be installed for each area of use (which would require electrical work most likely).
For the standard hot water tank, heat pump hot water tanks (see also the following source) offer a substantial improvement over the traditional electric hot water tank. Instead of using electrical resistance to heat water (an expensive route), the heat pump hot water tank takes the heat in the air around the tank to heat the water. It will also dehumidify the space in the process (much like an air conditioner would).
Finally, one can still find solar thermal hot water systems (although they are rarer with the rise of solar PV or photovoltaics– which produce electricity). Here, the water in a tank is heated by fluid warmed by the sun. These can be incredibly efficient systems, and in our area, a vertical solar thermal exchange system can work best year round (and not compete with solar PV space).
If you own a car, think about replacing it with an electric vehicle when it is time for a change. Electric vehicles are cheaper to run (due to lower fuel and maintenance costs) and recent tax credits make them comparable in upfront costs. They are also very quiet and fun to drive.
You may be worried about how you will charge an electric vehicle, particularly if you do not have your own driveway or garage. While more robust charging infrastructure is being planned, you may not see it in your area yet. If you have these concerns, consider a plug-in hybrid car. If you charge it when you can, you can substantially reduce your fuel costs, without worrying about whether you can charge it all the time, because a gasoline engine kicks in once the charge is reduced.
Gas dryers can be readily replaced with an electric dryer. A 220V plug will be needed for this replacement. Aim for the most efficient model for your needs.
Step 5: Attend to home efficiency
In addition to electrifying our home energy system, we also need to attend to the efficiency of the home in general. The recommendations for replacement systems above are for more efficient systems generally, but to address the efficiency of the home in total, we should look at additional parts of the system.
Making our home envelope more efficient focuses on the insulation and air-sealing for our walls, windows, and attic.
This can be as simple as caulking around window frames to reduce air flow (and cutting down on cold winter drafts) and as ambitious as insulating the walls of an existing house (through blown in insulation). One can also add insulation to the exterior when replacing siding.
Assessing what needs to be done is often done best with expert help. Locally, the non-profit Michigan Energy Options provides whole house assessments of the home envelope and can help you assess what needs to be done to make your home more comfortable and more efficient. You can also get assessments through BWL’s Hometown Energy Savers Program.
LEDs (light emitting diodes) are the most efficient light bulb you can buy. They also do not have the mercury contamination risk that compact fluorescents (CFLs) have. Home lighting can be readily and affordably switched to LEDs.
You can tell that they are far more efficient than old incandescent bulbs by how much less heat they emit. You can safely touch an LED bulb even after it has been on for an hour—not so with an incandescent bulb. All that extra heat from the incandescent bulb is waste heat—and not desirable at all in the summer. So check your bulbs after they have been on for a while. If they are too hot to the touch, replace them with LEDs.
LEDs also last many times longer than incandescent bulbs, so you will not have to replace them as often. Because they use so much less energy (80-90% less!), they will save you money!
LEDs are available with a range of colors (cool to warm light), in a variety of shapes, and can be dimmable.
Many of our home appliances are already electric. Our refrigerators, deep freezers, dishwashers, and clothes washers are all already electric. What can be done here?
First, note that some home appliances are more efficient to have than not to have. Automatic dishwashers are so efficient in their water use that they save energy (from water heating) compared with hand washing the dishes (as long as the dishwasher is usually full when run). So, keep using your dishwasher—and don’t pre rinse the dishes!
Refrigerators have become substantially more efficient in recent years. An old fridge costs the household a lot of money to keep running. Don’t keep older fridges as second fridges, if at all possible. If you have a second fridge, consider whether you really need it. If it is an older fridge, it is probably a big drain on your electric bill. If you need it only over the winter holidays, for example, unplug it, clean it, and store it with a baking soda box until it is needed. Try to have only one fridge operating in the house, and dispose properly of any old fridges. It is very important that the refrigerants are carefully recaptured, as they pose a substantial threat to the climate.
Other appliances should be replaced with the most efficient models possible when they need to be replaced. BWL provides rebates for the most efficient models of appliances. Old appliances are often recycled by your appliance dealer. Other ways to recycle old appliances are available locally.
Step 6: Consider the source of electricity
Replacing fossil fuels with electricity generally reduces our total energy usage, because electric appliances, automobiles, and HVAC systems are so much more efficient than fossil fuel systems. We can tell this by how much less waste heat they produce (e.g. in cars) and how much quieter they are (noise is also wasted energy). So, electrifying these systems is already a huge benefit to the environment.
However, you might also be concerned with how the electricity is being generated. In the Lansing Area, BWL still uses fossil fuels (natural gas) for the majority of its electricity generation. While the shift away from coal is beneficial, the dependence on natural gas for generation still poses a problem for decarbonization and addressing the threat to the climate.
One way to address this is to install a home solar photovoltaic (PV) system. These systems can be installed on your roof and can provide clean and affordable energy to your home. Guidance for solar PV is available here. While these systems can cost a substantial amount at the start, financing options are available as well as substantial federal tax credits. Once installed, PV panels guarantee 98% production levels for at least 20 years, and decline slowly thereafter. So a new solar system is a way to provide your home with energy at an inflation proof fixed cost for decades to come.
Another option is to enroll in your local utility’s renewable energy program. This will provide you with renewable electricity, although at an additional cost. See, for example, LBWL’s Greenwise Program.
Other options, such as community solar systems, are not yet widely available in Michigan. LBWL’s Burcham Park community solar project is already fully subscribed. We will keep you posted as new projects arise! We don’t recommend pursuing carbon offsets for your electricity use at this time, as the carbon offset market has been having difficulties (also here) ensuring genuine carbon offsetting
Finally: Do what you can
Remember, we don’t have to make the energy changes all at once! We just need to start now. Federal tax credits are also now available for many of the energy changes described here, making them more affordable.
Planning ahead can help make the transition less stressful. We hope this guide helps you with making your home and household more energy efficient, safer, more comfortable, and closer to carbon neutral.
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