Sustainable Marblehead offers primer on ‘the stairway to net zero’

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Sustainable Marblehead supplied a small audience gathered in the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary and zoomers with a “think globally, act locally” primer on ways to mitigate their carbon footprint and save money. 

Lynn Bryant, the former Sustainable Marblehead executive director, moderated the two-hour presentation given by Marblehead Light Commission Vice Chair Lisa Wolf and Mark Adams, chair of the nonprofit’s Green Homes and Buildings Working Group. 

In opening remarks, Bryant and Wolf painted a dire portrait of the adverse effects that human-induced climate change has had on the world. 

“In the news this week, the press was given a draft of the United States National Climate Assessment – a detailed look at the current and future consequences of global warming here in the United States,” said Bryant. “This assessment is released every four years, and the current report will officially be released next year. The draft stated that the United States has warmed 68 percent faster than the Earth as a whole in the past 50 years.” 

That increase has spawned more and more extreme weather: Heat waves, heavy rainfall, droughts and wildfires. 

“In this country, we’re relatively sheltered from the worst effects of climate change,” said Wolf as she projected a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration chart that shows the number of billion-dollar climate disasters in the United States since 1980.  “But the economic impact in terms of loss and damage from natural disasters is growing.” 

Climate change’s economic cost 

In 1980, the United States had three climate disasters that cumulatively cost $100 billion. In 2020, the country experienced 22 climate disasters that cumulatively cost half a trillion dollars. 

“We often hear the arguments that our choices here in Marblehead ultimately have little impact on the global climate,” said Bryant. “Real change can begin at the local level – and in fact that local change often begins with the individual.” 

She added, “Yes policy, collaboration, and commitment to following science are essential at local, state, and national levels- but we can use the power of our choices to make a difference right here.” 

Wolf pointed to three overarching ways in which society can eliminate fossil fuels: electrifying everything, creating energy efficiencies and de-carbonizing power supply.  

On the latter, she said 43 percent of the Marblehead Municipal Light Department’s existing power portfolio falls under the non-emitting generated power – hydro, wind and nuclear.  The utility company anticipates expanding the portfolio’s non-emitting sources to include  “offshore wind, community-scale solar in Marblehead and elsewhere and community-scale battery eclectic storage.” 

Bryant said a movement to net zero on a local level is currently being pursued.

 “Our Marblehead Green Committee is a collaboration of town elected and departmental leadership and Sustainable Marblehead  – with an unprecedented dedication to charting a path to net-zero carbon emissions in our town by 2040,” she said. 

The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the Nature Conservancy. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons.

“Heating our homes is the single biggest carbon producer in our lives,” Wolf said, adding that homes warmed by oil and natural-gas on average produce between four and seven carbon tons annually. “Converting your oil-heated home to a heat pump can reduce carbon emissions seven times. Converting gas to a heat pump could reduce your emissions 4.7 times.” 

The stairway to net zero

One out of every five homes built before 1980 is properly insulated, and in Marblehead, there are a lot of homes built before that time. Adams said 44 percent of the total carbon emissions in Marblehead come from homes.

“Home weatherization is the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon output and energy bills,” said Adams. “Improved weatherization also provides fewer temperature fluctuations.” 

Costs can deter people from taking action, but Adams walked the day’s audience through discounts, tax breaks and subsidies to finance green transitions. Many of the decisions should not be carried out on impulse; they require proactive measures and planning (check out the “Save Energy, Save Money, Protect the Plan” section of Sustainable Marblehead’s website: Adams encouraged Marblehead Municipal Light Department customers to call NextZero at 888-333-7525 to schedule a free in-house energy audit.

“By investing in green upgrades, we can lower our emissions, save on energy bills and make our homes more comfortable,” Adams said. “Green upgrades will increase the value of your home.” 

Adams said a good starting point is a home audit.

“[The] audit report will cover insulation requirements plus benefits from upgrading appliances and hot water heaters,” said Adams. “[The report] will also provide guidance on available rebates.” 

Wolf said a simple step to significantly save money and reduce carbon emissions involves no out-of-pocket costs. It’s called flattening the peak: Spreading out electricity usage – not using it at times when everybody is using the most amount of electricity.”

“Leveling your load is a really important concept to start adjusting your habits around,” said Wolf. “What it basically means is shifting your electricity use from peak demand hours, which is generally from about 5 to 8 p.m. on the weekdays to times that are not 5 8 p.m. on the weekdays.”

Another reason to chart a net-zero path: Costs to warm homes – especially those that use liquified gas and heating oil – during the winter months continue to rise.

The United States Energy Information Administration forecasts the highest energy costs in a quarter century. Heating costs nationwide are set to go up as much as 28 percent over the 2021 season.

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