Our Carbon Footprint: 2009

February 2010 Greenhouse Action Plan Progress Report

2009 saw some excellent changes in infrastructure and equipment, which we project will help us reduce our carbon footprint even further in the coming years. We now have two new solar thermal hot water heaters, a new minibus that we’ll be able to run on waste vegetable oil, and some new photovoltaic solar panels as well. The garden also was greatly enlarged when we installed our solar insulated planting bed. Our total carbon output for 2009 was 31.8 tons for 5110 people, or 12.44 lbs per person. So while we reduced our total by 1% from the year before, we increased our total carbon output per person by 13.7%.

This baffled us at first. How, after spending so much time and money on improving our infrastructure, did we actually increase our carbon output? Electric and propane usage were way up, but our fuel use was way down (see graph above). We were shocked because we expected dramatic decreases in all areas, especially propane, having installed the new solar hot water heaters. After a short time staring at our receipts and scratching our heads like deflated monkeys, we figured it out.

How it happened:

For most of last year, we had a caretaker’s family living here on site. On one hand, that was great for our long term goals because the caretaker bartered rent in exchange for building the active solar thermal hot water heater for the guest showers and bathrooms as well as another passive solar thermal hot water heater for the upstream kitchen. On the other hand, the building that the caretaker’s family lived in has not been retrofitted for energy efficiency; it was actually a structure we considered removing as part of our overall emissions reduction strategy (see our Jan 2009 article). It’s not terribly bad on the electrical end, but the propane needed to heat it during the winter is substantial. This brought to mind some facts that we found in our research last year, in particular that the carbon footprint of just heating and cooling an average American home is about 15 tons, roughly half of our total carbon footprint here at the river center. So while the family that was living here was more conscientious about their energy use than that, the fact remains that day to day affects of heating and cooling really do have a large impact on carbon production. The average American family’s total home energy footprint is around 29 tons CO2. 

Analysis:

At first, we figured that the caretakers’ impact shouldn’t count against us because it’s not part of our normal operations protocol to have year-round residents, especially since we have very little control over their carbon consumption habits. In order to accurately calculate the carbon footprint per guest, we’ll need to separate our propane and electrical use from the renters/work-trade tenants personal use if they stay on site through the winter. Not all the carbon emissions they incur will be related to operating the business (more on that subject later in this post).

But we also realize that as our company continues to bring in more guests through our outdoor education programs, we’ll need to have staff accommodations available throughout the year. In fact, our first intern is moving in as I write this. That means we need to find fast, cost-efficient ways to green up our staff housing.

Here’s a list of strategies for the caretaker building that hopefully can get the job done:
  • Replace all incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent or LED bulbs (each saves an average of $10.50/year).
  • Install season-appropriate curtains to all windows (black on one-side to absorb the sunlight in cold seasons, white on the other side to reflect sunlight in warm seasons).
  • Turn down hot water heater until we can build our third solar batch heater, or purchase on-demand water heater. (heating water accounts for about 30% of an average energy bill).
  • Use small, energy-star space heaters instead of costly and inefficient central propane systems.
  • Encourage and educate renters/work-trade tenants to be conscientious about saving power and buying/using products with low ecological impacts.

Here is our list of improvements for 2009, as well as those in progress or planned for this year: 

Electricity:

  • Got rid of ancient refrigerator in the ‘guide ghetto’ and replaced it with one that actually had a seal to the door to hold in the cold (2009).
  • Installed timers on bathroom lights (2009).
  • Installed photovoltaic solar panels on boathouse (2010, in progress; panels are mounted but still be to be wired).
  • Install photovoltaic solar panels on ‘Mother Dome’ (2010, panels acquired but not installed).

Propane:

  • Built in-line solar thermal hot water heater (using the old refrigerator as an insulation box!) for upstream kitchen (2009).
  • Built active solar thermal hot water heater for guest shower/bathroom/changing room (2009).
  • Other upgrades for caretaker building already discussed above (2010, not yet implemented).

Gas:

  • Used over 500 gallons less gas/diesel due to a combination of using waste-vegetable oil vehicles more often as kinks were worked out of the fledgling system.
  • Used more fuel efficient conventional vehicles for errands (2009).

Food Program (not yet factored in to total footprint; see closing note):

  • Adjusted menu to group age demographic in order to waste less food. (2009)
  • Used waste vegetable oil powered Volkswagon Passat for food shopping trips. (2009)
  • Adjusted menu again to include more fruit and vegetable dishes in every meal. (2009)
  • Served more food from the organic garden than in an
    y previous year (2009; we are going to start quantifying the exact amount this year, but it was easy to assume we served more this year because the garden was nearly twice as large).
  • Supplement garden crop with weekly community supported agriculture deliveries

Political Action:

  • Educated guests about emissions reduction policy leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
  • Collected and sent hand-written letters from guests encouraging legislation that effectively deals with climate change.

An Important Closing Note

One of our goals is to be as candid and honest as we can about tracking our carbon footprint. The calculations have definitely been an interesting, sometimes frustrating process, and we continue to educate ourselves as we move forward. We learn new things about our company’s energy use and also about the process itself. We realize our use of fuel, electricity, and propane are not the only variables, but they are undoubtedly the largest, which is why we have focused on them. Food consumption is also a part of carbon emissions, but to calculate it is a task that would make even a seasoned statistician sweat.

Consider a pound of turkey. First we need to calculate the emissions of raising the turkey. How much carbon was used producing turkey feed? Well, that depends on what it was fed; a corn-based diet (which is the most likely) has a greater footprint than a free-range diet (how much, and with what feed, of that diet is supplemented). Also, where was the turkey raised? If in colder climates, it cost more carbon to heat the roosting houses. If far away from the point of purchase, it will cost more carbon to ship it to the store. Also, where did they ship it to be butchered, and what methods to were used to butcher it; there are many ways, all using different amounts of carbon. And this is just the tip of the iceberg that seems to fractal without pause. The process of calculating the actual footprint of just this one, let alone the hundreds of products we serve, would be nearly impossible for our small staff. Even large organizations funded by companies with massive budgets like Coca Cola have failed to produce scientifically sound results.

But we don’t plan to just ignore these facets because they are difficult to calculate. We plan to use a variety of the excellent environmental guides to products and services, such as GoodGuide, which uses a database of over 1100 different base criteria from a network of academic institutions, governmental and non-governmental data sources, and private research firms to make a categorized rating system that’s user friendly. This quickly evolving ‘radical transparency’ (read about it in depth in Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence) makes deciding which products are the most appropriate much easier than it was just a few years ago, even if we can’t exactly quantify it in terms of carbon footprint.

To get a quick, conservatively high, rough estimate for now, we’ll use the average U.S. impacts of food processing and consumption per person with eating habits fairly similar to what’s on our menu (3 tons CO2 per person ), divide it by meals per year (1095/avg. person) to get the average pounds of emissions per meal (5.48 lbs/person), and multiply that to our number of individual meals we served last year (7,746) to get a total of 42,448 lbs or 21.22 tons CO2. But again, this doesn’t actually represent our food consumption accurately because we serve lunches far more than any other meal (what%), grow some of our own vegetables, etc.

An impressive stat to report on our progress though, is that even when adding this high estimate on our carbon footprint from food consumption, we still have less carbon emissions (53 tons) than the average U.S. family (60 tons).

Picture of Scotty

Scotty

Scotty is a true explorer, even in his own backyard, the California foothills. 'Having lived here for 30 years,' he says, 'I constantly discover new things here, be it a plant I've never seen before in the woods, a bird I spot on the river that sends me rushing for my guide book when I get home, or climbing up a tributary creek that I've never explored.'
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