Learn About Your Carbon Footprint

Shower HeadThere’s much talk nowadays about reducing your carbon footprint. But it often isn’t clear how to go about doing so. Change your light bulbs? Take shorter, colder showers? What about switching to natural gas?

It turns out that the average natural gas home emits 46 percent less carbon dioxide than the average all-electric home. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, putting off 117,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per billion BTU of energy input, compared to 164,000 pounds and 208,000 pounds from oil and coal respectively. As such, gas offers a distinctly greener way to satisfy your energy needs than other types of energy.

If you want to calculate your own carbon footprint or compare the carbon emissions of gas and electric heating elements for your home, check out this handy calculator. If you need to make some changes, look for tips in this eco-action list for your home to find out how to make some positive changes.

Calculating the carbon footprint of household appliances is a tricky business. In 2009, the National Academies of Sciences recommended that the Department of Energy (DOE) use full-fuel-cycle measurement, which accounts for energy consumed in producing and distributing fuel along with energy used to operate appliances. Measuring this way offers a more complete and accurate picture of energy use, since it considers the energy spent to produce, generate, and transport the fuel to the point of use.

Full-fuel-cycle measurements are useful because they allow consumers to measure the total energy efficiency of their homes by incorporating all the energy costs involved. If an electric water heater is 90 percent efficient, it seems like a good bet compared to a natural gas water heater that is only 65 percent efficient. But a full-fuel-cycle measurement would tell a homeowner that electricity production and distribution involves energy losses as high as 70 percent to 75 percent, while the generation and distribution of gas involves losses of only about 10 percent. This compete measurement makes the natural gas water heater look like a greener choice after all.

Measuring this way may seem like a no-brainer, but there has long been debate over this question. However, the majority of the members of the committee that wrote the National Academies report supported a gradual switch to full-fuel-cycle measurements. The DOE has proposed to adopt this method of measurement in 2012 and was commended for doing so by the American Gas Association (AGA). Stakeholder comments and questions are currently being reviewed by the DOE in preparation of a final policy ruling. If adopted, the full-fuel-cycle method will provide consumers with a more accurate way to measure and compare energy and greenhouse gas emissions across products and equipment they use in their homes.


Photo: stevendepolo via Flickr