Decarbonizing your life doesn’t have to be hard

Better late than never. I’ve been decarbonizing my life.

Granted, it’s a work in progress. There are a lot more extreme steps I could take, like become a vegan. Meat prices are so high that cutting back on it isn’t too hard. If nothing else, we’ve been reducing portion sizes. My wife simply won’t give it up, so at best I’d have to eat a lot of meals I prepare myself. Cows in particular put out a lot of methane.

But my wife is helping in other ways. Last New Year’s Eve, she bought a Nissan Leaf, a fully electric car but one which can’t in any meaningful sense be considered a touring car. Its range is about 150 miles. But most of the time we’re at home which means she has a range of about 75 miles on a full charge. She rarely needs more than 30 miles. If we ever move, moving her car will be one of the challenges. Every 150 miles she’d have to stop at a public charger and at best she’d be stuck there a few hours while it recharges.

Our garage now has a proper car charging circuit. We spent about two thousand dollars to have an electrician install a 240 volt, 50 amp circuit to the garage. It seemed a bit of an indulgence since she uses it so little that waiting a day or so to charge it from a 120 volt, 15 amp circuit wasn’t a bother. Eventually I’ll have a fully electric car too and it will be used regularly.

For a while I sort of did have one: a Toyota Prius Prime, which on a good day could get thirty miles before the engine kicked in. Unfortunately, it became infested with mice and was declared totaled. The next best thing was a 2019 Toyota Camry hybrid which I eventually replaced it with. It gets about 47mpg and is our touring car.

Since 2016, we’ve had solar panels on our roof. We paid for it in full with some money I inherited from my parents that I received a few months after my dad died. That is certainly green, but it turns out the system was a bit undersized. The rest of it comes from a solar farm in Central Massachusetts. This is not quite as green as I hoped as I subsequently learned the solar farm displaced a pine forest that used to be there.

I’ve learned that getting solar is a no-brainer. In a bit less than five years it fully paid for itself, helped in part by generous federal and Massachusetts solar tax credits. Now it actually makes us money. In Massachusetts, it’s part of a SREC-II program, which means that companies pay us to claim our solar energy, avoiding their need to decarbonize. It amounted to about $1800 last year. This revenue stream will go away in about five years. But the solar panels will remain on the house, and that will still save us money compared to buying the power from our provider. Here in western Massachusetts, commercial power is very pricey and averages about $.24/kwh. At that rate, we saved about $1500 in annual electricity costs in 2021, and we can expect that cost savings every year until the system becomes too inefficient. I’ll probably be dead by then, so it should outlast me.

It also helps to drive less. If you work from home, you are inadvertently doing your part. While I’m retired from a full time job, I still do some consulting, so I’m helping there. We do a lot less distance driving than we used to do, and the pandemic cut that down even further. It was all that time with my car garaged that likely caused the mice to infest it. Also, we do less traveling. A recent cruise and the flights to and from the cruise port were exceptions. Even the cleanest burning cruise ship is going to put out a lot of carbon emissions.

One of our latest steps has been looking at our investments and making them cleaner. We’ve done this is two phases, but mostly it meant moving money into funds that are focused on green technologies. Talking it over with our financial adviser, we discovered there was likely no downside to doing this. Well managed ESG (environmental, social and governmental) funds tend to match or exceed the S&P 500 index. We started with our retirement funds. Except for my considerable IRA in the federal employee’s Thrift Saving Plan (TSP, which has no such type of environmental fund), these funds have been moved into Black Rock ESG electronic trading funds. This article can point you to some of the funds we bought into.

More recently we decided to invest our cash accounts, well into six figures, into more ESG funds. With inflation high, the low interest rate we were getting meant that we were losing money by hoarding cash. We don’t need all this cash for anticipated expenses, so investing these for ten years or so in the hopes we’ll beat inflation seemed a logical thing to do. After all, I have a cushy government pension. It went into more Black Rock ESG funds. As for my TSP funds, I can move them into a brokerage but I would lose the no-fee aspect which makes TSP accounts so nice to have.

What’s still to be done? We live in New England, generally a cold state. People usually heat their houses with gas or oil. It’s gas in our case. We also have a gas oven and a gas-fired water heater. I haven’t talked my wife into it yet, but I’m hoping as these move toward replacement they’ll be replaced with electric appliances, and the AC unit will become a heat pump. (The AC unit is effectively a heat pump during the summer; it’s the winter that’s the problem.) We weren’t enamored with heat pumps when we lived in Virginia but they have gotten more efficient and more reliable. They’re not sexy and they won’t blast heat at you like a gas furnace will, but it’s a better way to go, particularly if I can expand our solar array.

But expanding the solar array is difficult. It makes no sense, but current law requires that we would have to install and meter a separate system to expand it, needlessly inflating costs. There is a smaller roof on our house that could hold another ten panels or so. If we get rid of gas appliances though, this and the continually falling price of solar panels probably will nudge us in this direction.

Eventually my car will be wholly electric too, but the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, which is why I reluctantly bought a hybrid.

One household can’t do much, but millions of households can. If you’ve been reluctant to get started, start with solar panels, if your house gets abundant sunshine. It will pay for itself, so it’s also financially sound. Otherwise choose electricity from clean and renewable sources. Check with your electric company to see how you can do this.

There’s (solar) gold in them thar hills!

If you own a gold mine, it’s a pretty good investment until of course the gold veins run dry.

But there’s a kind of mine that never runs out: solar gold, you might say. I’ve already gotten a share of this solar gold. For three years, we’ve had 20 solar panels on our roof. According to the obsessive statistics I keep, we’ve generated 20,076-kilowatt hours (kwhs) of clean energy since it went online in June 2016. It’s the equivalent of planting 363 trees.

But twenty solar panels turned out not to be enough. The remainder comes from carbon-free wind energy, but perhaps not much longer. A solar farm is under construction in Gardner, Massachusetts. We’ll probably get the rest from that solar farm when it is operational in March 2020.

The electricity from our house’s solar panels is free, after we recoup the cost of the system, which should happen around 2023. The same can’t be said for this solar farm under construction. We won’t own any of these solar panels. Instead, we’ll be renting them. Unlike our wind energy, for which we pay a 3.8 cents/kwh premium, we’ll get this solar power for less than it would cost to draw it from the grid. So we can go greener and pay less for the privilege.

How this works is that our “share” of the solar farm’s electricity is credited to our electric bill. So if our share generates 500 kwhs a month, presumably we’ll get a $0 bill from the electric company and see that as a credit that we draw from in future months. Of course, we still pay for our “share”. I’ll get into how that is done in a moment.

There are solar farms going up all around us. Land is relatively cheap here in Western Massachusetts, at least what there is of it. A lot of it is set-aside as conservation areas. But areas that have been deforested might as well become solar farms: huge arrays of solar panels that do nothing but wait for sunshine and sell it to the local electric company, National Grid. These solar farms have done the math and basically everyone wins.

  • Society wins by reducing the amount of carbon pollution
  • Electric companies win because they buy the power at a wholesale rate, and mark it up for retail pricing. Also, they don’t have the investment costs of creating new power plants.
  • I win because I get a discount on power compared to what I’d pay National Grid for their retail price
  • Solar farm gets to claim SREC (Solar Energy Renewable Certificates) payments for putting up a solar farm, plus they get the income selling the power to National Grid. These solar farms also make profits from the 15% discount I get compared to National Grid.

Moreover, there are no fields that need planting and harvesting. It’s all passive income. Maintenance costs for solar systems are almost zero. I imagine they might need to replace some inverters from time to time, and build a tall fence to keep people out, but that should be it. In thirty years or so they will probably swap the panels, or if new panels become much cheaper and more efficient, it might make sense to replace them long before then.

What I’d like to do is add more solar panels to my roof. I’ve looked into it but for reasons that look entirely bureaucratic, I’d have to put up a completely new system, with separate pipes, metering, etc. This frankly makes no sense but I’ve found no way around it after trading many emails and a phone call with National Grid. The cost of a separate system compared to adding to what I have amounts to thousands of dollars.

But even so, there’s a limit to the amount of panels I can put up. Realistically, it would be hard to add more than four panels to my roof. Putting more up in my backyard is not an option. First, I may be in a single-family house, but it’s a 55+ community, so we’re technically a condominium. Second, I have no backyard to speak of. I have about four feet of it. Otherwise my “yard” is a steep hill with about a 15% incline. There’s all this plus my new car is a Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid. So it is now drawing energy from the grid too. At least it’s all clean energy.

As we look toward a carbonless future though, it’s clear to me that these solar farms are leading indicators of what 2050 will look like. There will be lots and lots of solar farms. People who have roofs that are reasonably unobstructed will add solar panels. One state, California, requires it for all new construction. With the cost of solar panels continually dropping, pretty much any surface that points toward the sun and is unobstructed will have them. In time, they won’t look like solar panels, but will blend in naturally.

Lots of condo, apartment and city dwellers though will want to buy their share from solar farms. It’s likely that they will save money for doing so … and help save the planet.