By Jon Ward
In 2017, the City of Falls Church adopted the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ 2050 goal of reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent compared to 2005. MWCOG has adopted an interim 2030 goal of 50 percent reduction. Since 2005, cleaner power-generation technologies have been offset by increases in City traffic and population, so by 2018 our total emissions were down only 2 percent. It’s a tough challenge.
The Virginia General Assembly is requiring Dominion Energy to shift electricity production significantly away from fossil fuel (mainly natural gas) and toward solar, nuclear, wind, and hydroelectric. This helps greatly, but it focuses only on the electric grid and occurs gradually over the next 25 years. The federal government intends to further incentivize using less and cleaner energy, but that too will take time.
There is a lot we can and must do now, locally. Economical products are available that support our goals, and there is no time to waste in putting them to use. While some cleaner technologies may cost more upfront than their polluting counterparts, operating and maintenance costs often make lifetime costs lower. With an eye on 2030, here are the individual actions that can have the greatest effects:
Make your next vehicle electric or a plug-in hybrid (new or used; buy or lease). If you only drive a few thousand miles a year, don’t sweat this one yet: your fuel use is already low. But if you drive closer to 10,000 or more miles per year, the total cost of ownership will likely be less than for an internal combustion vehicle, despite the typically higher upfront cost (consumerreports.org/hybrids-evs/evs-offer-big-savings-over-traditional-gas-powered-cars/). Don’t see a model on the market (plugstar.com/guide) that fits your needs? Nurse your current vehicle along another year or two as model options expand rapidly. It won’t last? Choose a used vehicle to get you through the next few years, then switch.
Meanwhile, if you drive, drive less. Once your post-Covid schedule stabilizes, track your monthly mileage. Then look for how you can cut it by about 15 percent (without ride-hailing). Combine errands into single trips, walk or bike, telecommute, use transit, form a carpool – it all adds up. New developments in the City are encouraging walkability and safe biking options. With about 13,000 vehicles registered in the City, a 15 percent cut could equate to taking 2,000 vehicles off the road.
Single-family home? Consider a heat pump when your current furnace or A/C gives out. In 2018, over 10 percent of GHG emissions attributed to the City was from residential use of natural gas, almost as much as from residential electricity use. Heating and cooling systems installed today could last to 2035 or beyond. Shifting your heating to an electric heat pump will result in lower emissions from the electric grid as it keeps getting cleaner. Twenty years ago, heat pumps had a reputation for being unable to keep up when temperatures neared freezing. But today’s heat pumps can efficiently handle our local climate.
House over 12 years old? Consider an energy assessment. You may already have done a lot on your own: switched to LED and compact fluorescent lights (discard CFLs at the annual hazmat collection); installed programmable thermostats; chosen ENERGY STAR appliances; discarded that spare fridge running in a hot garage; checked for drafts and then caulked and weather-stripped doors and windows; made sure any chimney damper is tight. And there are plenty of government and DIY websites with advice (energy.gov/energysaver; hes.lbl.gov/consumer/). But at some point, investing in an expert energy audit may help prioritize heating & air-conditioning (HVAC), windows, sealing, insulation and other improvements to cut energy use. The older the house and its systems, the bigger the savings likely to be found. A simple walk-through home energy check can cost less than $50.
Also, professional HVAC checks not only maintain system efficiency, they can stop a refrigerant leak before it does more climate damage. Even a small 5 percent loss of Puron (a common air conditioning refrigerant) could total 0.5 lb. It is a potent greenhouse gas, and over 20 years that 0.5 lb will have the same climate effect as burning 110 gallons of gasoline today.
Own or operate commercial property in the City? First, congrats for hanging in there through the pandemic. Second, follow the same recommendations as above. In 2018, GHG emissions due to energy use in our commercial buildings was about 20 percent more than for residential, so comparable reduction levels are needed. Consider rooftop solar: your payback and tree-shade factors are likely even more favorable than our residents’. Continue to support any telecommuting that you expanded this past year.
The City can continue encouraging efficient new buildings, car-free alternatives, and legislation from Richmond. But citizens’ focus on a few key areas can accelerate our shift to a low-carbon society.
Jon Ward is a resident of the City of Falls Church