Dear Eartha, I’m trying to decrease my carbon footprint at home. I subscribe to a renewable electricity program but what do I do about heating with natural gas? I want to save, but I don’t want to live in an igloo!
This is an excellent question to ponder as we enter heating season – or, what’s supposed to be heating season, anyway (hello, 50-degree temps in December!). You have identified one of the biggest challenges facing our community’s – and, frankly, many communities’ – efforts to fight climate change. What do we do about natural gas?
Natural gas has been touted as an important fuel for transitioning away from coal. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when burned in newer power plants, it produces between 50 – 60 fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal. So that’s good, right?
Well, as they say, the devil is in the details. Because all that gas has to be extracted, stored, and transported. There are 500,000 natural gas wells in the United States and over 2 million miles of pipe. Along its journey from well to storage tank to home, there’s plenty of opportunity for gas to leak. And new research indicates that gas leaks are a lot more prevalent than previously thought.
A few years ago, the Environmental Defense Fund – in partnership with universities (including Colorado State University), think tanks, and even some natural gas companies – published a study that presented findings from a 5-year investigation into the natural gas industry. The study found the U.S. oil and gas industry leaks 13 million metric tons of gas each year – that’s enough to heat 10 million homes for a year, and it’s 60 percent higher than the EPA’s own gas leakage estimates.
What’s the big deal with gas leaks? Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. Even though carbon dioxide (CO2) is touted as the primary driver of climate change, methane is actually more effective at trapping heat. In fact, over 20 years, methane traps 86 times as much heat as CO2.
Passing (on) Gas
According to the Energy Information Agency, 47 percent of U.S. homes heat with gas. In the West, that number increases to 55 percent. If we’re really going to get serious about fighting climate change, we need to work with homeowners across the country to move away from natural gas boilers and furnaces and transition to more efficient electric heating technologies (not your 1970s-era baseboard electric – promise).
That’s not going to happen overnight, so until electrification is more widespread, conservation is key. That means cutting your carbon footprint by using less gas at home. Where to start? Here are a few ideas:
- Invest in simple upgrades for your home. You pay good money to keep your indoor air warm. When it sneaks outside, your heating system works overtime. It’s a bigger problem than you might realize – in our cold climate, air leaks can account for up to 40 percent of your heating costs! And if your home is under-insulated, it’s not trapping that heat as well as it should. A home energy assessment is the best tool for identifying air leaks and places your home could use an insulative boost. The High Country Conservation Center’s Energy Smart Colorado program offers discounted assessments so you can make smart decisions about improvements. And for a limited time, Xcel Energy is offering bonus rebates on certain upgrades just for Summit County residents.
- Heat smarter. Xcel Energy is also seeking eligible Summit County natural gas customers to participate in the Heat Savers Mode Study to help save gas during periods of extreme cold and peak demand. Participation would allow Xcel Energy to set back your thermostat a few degrees during specific time periods. To say thanks, eligible customers could receive a free smart thermostat and up to $250 in incentives. If you need a smart thermostat, call the High Country Conservation Center at (970) 668 – 5703 to schedule a virtual visit to find out if your heating system qualifies.
No matter how you heat your home, there’s no need to be a popsicle all winter! You can save gas – and be comfortable – with smart habits and home improvements. But the bottom line is, to really address climate change we need to electrify everything and leave gas in the past.