In 2009 we began realizing the need to replace our home’s heating and cooling system. Our home was built around 1960 and we had already completed a range of home improvements including upgraded Low-E windows and increased wall and ceiling insulation. We lived in a mature neighborhood with large trees providing good shade in summer but sunlight in winter. While we still could maintain the original natural gas furnace and central air conditioning unit for a few more years, it worked at 70% efficiency. Repair costs were increasing as well.
While new natural gas units now were available at 95% efficiency, a new option was making the rounds, ground-source (aka, geothermal) heat pumps. Similar to air-source heat pumps commonly used for air conditioning, energy is used to move heat via a liquid from one location to another. Given that subsurface temperatures remain around 55 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, our three 150-foot-deep column wells can quickly cool the warm summer heat and warm the cool winter heat within our home quite efficiently. The indoor heat pump unit uses electricity to complete the transfer of the thermal energy from the ground to our house where it is compressed to absorb and further adjust the temperature of the refrigerant year-round. And while our electric usage went up some, our fossil fuel use went significantly down. The savings, combined with Federal 30% Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency Improvements, allowed us to pay off the home loan before the 8 ½ year estimate we had anticipated.
In 2016 we joined a Champaign-Urbana collective helping homeowners purchase solar panel installations onto our homes. There was also a new set of Tax Credits we were able to use as part of this process. While the purchase and installation costs were higher, the additional decrease in heating and cooling costs through our own production of most of our electricity including that for our geothermal heat pump allowed us to fully pay that off in only 5 years.
It has taken time and effort to work through the many options of these two residential systems for our home. Variable utility pricing has added some further complications. We’ve had to work to change our usage patterns for electricity and the heating/cooling of our home that are a major user of that electricity. But these were not overly burdensome changes in the end. Over time they became a natural part of our daily lives, ones that seem quite normal for visitors to our home as well.
Our move towards green solutions isn’t 100% complete as we have chosen to keep our natural gas cooktop and oven. We still heat our garage in part with natural gas. And we still need our gas-powered car to assure we can transport our trailer used to transport home farming, gardening, and woodworking materials and also our pop-up camper.
And we’ve had to delay paying off our home loan through refinancing (fortunately at lower interest rates each time) to first purchase these high-cost green alternatives.
As I read the news this morning regarding the release of yesterday’s I.P.C.C. report Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-3/), these choices Angie and I made over the last two decades to lower our own fossil fuel emissions came back to mind. This reflection doesn’t mean much at all if it were only our individual steps. One family cannot make meaningful change alone.
But if I reflect further, I remember how after extended debate on our part and with neighbors and friends, we decided the benefits outweighed the costs. They outweighed the costs in large part through many small decisions that went on to shape larger decisions facilitating further small changes, such as:
- Our small metropolitan area’s decisions to enter into a range of public-private partnerships to facilitate creation of collective projects in support of such residential projects.
- The State of Illinois work to enter into agreements with Ameren Illinois to assure net-metering for solar such that our unused electricity at peak production covers our use of grid electricity during non-production times.
- Development of geothermal, heat pump, and solar technologies through state and federal funds, basic and applied work within research institution, local and regional social entrepreneurship, and eventually larger corporate investments.
- News reports, journal articles, books, and other well investigated and researched stories countering stock narratives regarding climate change, environmental impacts of various home and transportation choices, and the value and need of personal, governmental, non-profit, and corporate selection and implementation of choices on the climate locally and globally. And
- State and federal tax credits in support of our home’s commitment to spend our money in this way.
It is essential for us to bring greater balance within that which we individually value being and doing. Let’s say I value being in shape through regular exercise, for instance. What is the balance of this valued functioning if I spend 10+ hours a day sitting at my office desk for work and in a car traveling between work, home, and other daily/weekly activities including the gym? What is the balance if I afforded a work-community environment that provides options for a sit/stand station so that I can work standing as well as sitting, to take short breaks to walk around the building every 30-60 minutes, to bike or walk between work and home, and to make use of slightly costlier but more local resources for those daily/weekly activities of life?
Angie and I value a good home, both indoor and out, along with a good neighborhood. When we moved into our house within our neighborhood in 1995, we were told it was a great starter home. Along with many of our neighbors, though, we found the smaller home within a multigenerational and diverse neighborhood had much to offer in the way of balance. And while ultimately, we have likely invested more in the home than will be returned upon purchase, even when adding in cost savings, as an upper middle class family in this “starter home/neighborhood” we can also think of this as paying the many gifted social and civic contributions forward. And we pay it forward not only to those who purchase it when we move on, but also to our neighbors, our metro area, our region and country, and beyond. We pay it forward to the humans and to the more-than-human persons within these spaces.
And we pay back in a small and much overdue way to Mother Earth who gifts us day in and day out with the essentials of soil and sun, of climate, of food and natural resources, that when used carefully and wisely provide a life well lived for all.