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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don Shelby: Why I'm building an energy-efficient house

Why I'm building an energy-efficient house

by Don Shelby,, November 15, 2011
The news broke last week that the world dumped 564 million tons of additional CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010. That is about 6 percent more than we released into the atmosphere in 2009.

So much for CO2 emission reduction efforts.
Dr. John Abraham
Dr. John Abraham
Human beings use the atmosphere as a public sewer, with no cost attached, yet. We dump into the sky 30 billion tons — 30 gigatons — of CO2 from fossil fuel burning each year. The number would be much higher if the calculation included deforestation and simple agricultural practices like plowing fields.

According to Dr. John Abraham, thermal scientist in the physics department of the University of St. Thomas: "This is really bad news. It means that the solutions available to solve this problem are going to be more costly. The good news is that we can solve this problem. The bad news is the longer we wait, the harder those solutions will be."

The additional amount stuck into the sky in 2010 is greater than any single country's total contribution, with the exception of China, the United States and India. It is a big jump and the jump puzzles and frightens scientists.
Countries producing most CO2 compared to rise in total emissions
Source: Dr. John AbrahamCountries producing most CO2 compared to rise in total emissions
I've been reporting on global warming for a long time, and sometimes my reporting comes off quite preachy. I recognize that. I also know that when people preach, they are expected to walk the talk of the sermon.

Former Vice President Al Gore got into trouble after "An Inconvenient Truth," when it was reported that he lived in a 10,000-square foot, 20-room house with a yearly utility bill 15 times higher than most U.S. households.

Gore responded by saying he purchased "carbon off-sets" as a way to shrink his carbon footprint. People were right to cry foul, even though he invests in renewable fuels and pays extra to plant trees.

A new house
So, when I retired, my wife and I had saved enough money to build a home. We had never done that before. I know, I know. It is a terrible time to build a new home. I know it will never be worth what I'm putting into it. But I intend to live in it with my wife until our time comes. Payback and equity were not our first considerations.

Important to the two of us was that the house be as energy efficient as we could make it. It has been under construction for almost a year now, and we are told we can move in at the end of March. We'll sell the house we raised our children in for about 40 percent of its 2007 value. My timing has always been a little off.

The new house, in Excelsior, is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, the highest rating attainable. It is Minnesota GreenStar Gold rated, that organization's highest rating. It is now being rated for Greenpath, a program for energy-efficient design sponsored by the Builders Association of the Twin Cities (BATC).

Building a house that will consume a fraction of the fossil-fuel electricity and natural-gas heating is more expensive than a code-minimum house. There is the solar and geothermal and the triple-pane argon windows. There's the post-consumer plastic pavers made from recycled materials, and roof shingles made of recycled tires, and wood floors that came from buildings and barns where the lumber was cut from the forest 100 years ago. We will retain rainwater in a cistern, rain-gardens and a water retention sink below the driveway.

Why in this economy would anyone spend more for a house than absolutely necessary? Some would suggest that I'm trying to avoid being shouted down while I stand preaching in the pulpit. Some could argue that I'm trying to avoid the dilemma of Al Gore and his embarrassment. Those may be benefits, but they are not the answer.

A stone sculpture
Outside my new home will be a stone sculpture. I'm not much of an art collector, but I will have a stack of granite in front of the house. The "art" is called an inukshuk. You say it "in-ook-shook." The inukshuk will sit outside my front porch. You will have to see it when you approach on the sidewalk.

Sometimes the structures are just cairns, or stacks of rock, and sometimes they look at a distance like humans. They are seen on the tundra of the far north, put there by the native peoples of the Arctic. The Inuit have used them for tens of thousands of years, and if you ever get a chance to travel to far north Alaska or the Canadian Arctic, you will see them. The inukshuk is on the provincial flag of Nunavut in far north Canada, the land of the people we in the south used to call Eskimo.

An Inukshuk statue in Whistler, British Colombia.
REUTERS/Stefano RellandiniAn Inukshuk statue in Whistler, British Columbia.

Symbolism has always been important to humans. Our new house is kind of a symbol. The inukshuk is a symbol. One can ask the question: "Why a new energy efficient house?" Or one can ask: "Why an inukshuk in the front yard?"

The answer is the same. If you ask, next March, why I built the house, I will point to the inukshuk. If you ask about the inukshuk, I will point to the house.

The Inuit people and their culture already are the first casualties of global warming. It is possible in my lifetime that a whole culture could disappear. I don't want that to happen. I've spent a lot of time with Inuit people, and they don't put much CO2 into the atmosphere. But the CO2 we put in the atmosphere is changing their lives and, perhaps, spelling their doom.

I think about the Inuit, and the people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the islanders of Oceana, and I wonder if I'm hurting them. My mother always told me to take responsibility. I was never very good at it. But sometimes you can't hide from it.

There is an axiom that you can't control what other people do, but you can keep your side of the street clean. Someday, when I'm gone, I'd like the Inuit to know that I tried.

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