Smarter Living: Energy

It's embarrassing to consider how much gas we generate. Our cars, homes and lawnmowers spew out heat-trapping gases on a daily basis. But since carbon dioxide (CO2) is invisible, we rarely own up to our carbon emissions.

It would be very useful if we could inject a dye into CO2 that made it visible to the human eye. Our cars could be rigged to spew out a putrid brown or a sallow yellow. Just seeing the CO2 might convince many people to hop on their bikes to do their errands around town.

Since coloring CO2 is not an option at the moment, you have to use your imagination. The average American's emissions are usually tabulated in terms of pounds of CO2. You are probably familiar with buying your fruits and veggies by the pound. A pound of apples is about three medium-size ones. So how big is a pound of CO2?

It helps to think of CO2 as gas trapped inside a balloon. Filling a balloon with one pound of CO2 would swell the balloon to about the size of one of those rubber exercise balls that have become so popular lately. The balloon would be about two and a half feet across. You could hug it, but it wouldn't make you healthier.

Each day the average American fills up about 57 of these balloons. Now imagine all of those balloons rising up every day from 310 million Americans. You can see how--day after day, year after year--they'd fill up the sky.

About half of all electricity in the United States is made from burning coal. Coal-fired power plants emit about 2 billion tons of CO2 annually. Natural gas power plants, which make about one-fifth of the country's electricity, emit 400 million tons. Only about 8 percent of our electricity is made from hydroelectric and other renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Of course, your personal electricity-related carbon emissions depend on where your electricity comes from. But consider that, on average, given the typical sources in this country, even a single 75-watt incandescent bulb burning for two hours a day will generate six pounds of carbon dioxide a month. So be sure to shut the lights off!

Cars come next on the list of CO2 producers. For each gallon of gas that we pour into our tanks, our cars crank out about 25 pounds of carbon dioxide. If you commute 20 miles a day and your car gets 20 miles per gallon, you are making 25 pounds a day just getting to and from work.

Give your carbon dioxide balloons a squeeze with these simple tips:

Conserve electricity. Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs, turn off lights and appliances when they are not in use, turn down your thermostat and take shorter showers. See more energy saving tips at hes.lbl.gov.

Buy Energy Star rated appliances. Refrigerators and electric clothes dryers are two of the biggest electricity hogs in the house. You can't go without refrigeration, but you can switch to a solar clothes dryer (also known as a clothes line!).

Buy organic produce. Each acre of soil farmed organically captures over 7,000 pounds of the CO2 per year, according to a ten-year study conducted by the Rodale Institute (pdf).

Drive less. Switch to public transportation or pull that bike out of the garage. If you live in a rural area and must drive, group your errands so you use your car as little as possible.

Winterize. Improve insulation and adding weather stripping around windows and doors. See "Cold Weather Planning" for a step-by-step guide to improving your home from the outside in.

Purchase "green power." See if your utility offers energy from renewable, nonpolluting sources, such as windmills. To learn more, visit the Department of Energy's green power page. Compare green power options at PowerScorecard. And if you live in New York City, you have a model site to make your power selection at greenpowerny.com.

Learn More

CO2 Smackdown: How to Lose 10 Tons of CO2 in 12 Cash-Saving Steps

last revised 11/3/2011

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