RENEWABLES VS ENERGY SAVINGS - WHICH IS MORE SUSTAINABLE?
As an environmentally conscious homeowner, should you focus more on saving energy or creating energy in the most eco-friendly way? How do you become more sustainable? And what does "sustainable" mean anyway?
When building a home, it's clear that you are consuming a lot of natural resources for new materials and creating a lot of waste along the construction process. Moreover, you will have a lot of stuff, oftentimes new stuff, that goes into your house. And while living in the house, you will consume a lot of energy while living there. Especially on the part of living in a house and consuming energy, let's see if we can figure out if it makes more sense to reduce the consumption by saving energy, or offset the energy demand by producing power on-site from renewable sources.
Let's try to unpack all this by starting with sustainability!
Being sustainable in an environmental sense means maintaining ecological balance, or in other terms: Give back at least as much as you take out. This sounds simple enough but is incredibly hard to achieve in our consumerist society today.
But what you can do is try to be more sustainable by following a few key principles, also known as the 7 Rs of Sustainability:
You should constantly rethink your approach to natural resources. This can be done by asking yourself if there are things you can do to save those resources or use less of them.
One key question is at the time of purchase if you really need that item or if you can pass up on this purchase. If it's needed, you can also consider how it's made, how often you will use it, and if you can reuse or recycle it after you're done using it.
Refusal can be hard because it means to say No! to something you may really like.
It comes down to refusing to buy items that are damaging to the environment, e.g. made from too much plastic or being over-packaged. It could also mean stopping support for a certain company or brand.
An adjustment can be to avoid plastic bags for groceries from the store and using your own reusable bags.
The reduction should be straightforward but can be hard to implement daily because it means changing your habits. The reduction also goes across all areas around the house, e.g. using less water, creating less waste, using fewer cleaners, fewer cosmetics, and of course using less energy (check here for a few simple tricks to save on energy every day).
Repairing an item instead of replacing it means you are extending its lifetime and avoiding unnecessary waste.
Repairs go beyond patching some clothes and can include anything from furniture to appliances. And don't forget that maintaining an item along the way is a good way from having to fix it later or having to replace it, e.g. cleaning and staining your deck.
Reuse / Repurpose
Everyone has heard of reusable items like water bottles or travel mugs that can be used over and over again. This is a great way to avoid waste.
Repurposing means you are finding a new use for an item, like this tire swing. It can also mean to Re-Home it by giving it to someone else who can make use of it instead of throwing it out.
For optimal recycling, it is important to segregate the waste streams and being familiar with what items are allowed into which bin in your particular area.
It also helps to donate items that are no longer useable to you, e.g. clothing. Or you can leave items for free pickup at the curb or list them online.
Recover / Rot
Rotting mostly applies to composting food waste in your own backyard and using it as fertilizer or topsoil.
Recovery is about extracting resources and can include using rainwater for watering your yard or a greywater system for your toilets.
This is also where renewables come in as you are recovering energy from resources already available to you.
Coming Full Circle
The cycle of sustainability is really a hierarchy where the items listed first have the biggest impact. This is logical as you avoid or reduce demand, you are not just avoiding the use of the required natural resources, you are also avoiding the waste of creating an item or service (like electricity delivered to your house), and dealing with the disposal of it. It all makes sense in the way people talk about "reducing your carbon footprint".
You can also see that Reduction (= energy savings) is far higher up the priority list than Recovery (= Renewable Energy). If you didn't need as much energy, you wouldn't need to produce as much and all the systems supplying or operating your house could be downsized significantly.
So when building a house, reducing the energy demand must really come first. The most readily available and accessible building standard promoting energy efficiency we found is Passive House! The Passive House Institute has even started a campaign recently stating
"Efficiency: The first renewable energy".
This means the majority of the effort and investment for a new house should really go towards energy efficiency. Renewables should come last and only when all other options have already been explored and addressed.
Closing the loop on Sustainability
When looking at media and product marketing, there is a lot of green-washing that's going on these days, that is declaring something is green while it really isn't. There is no standard or regulated definition, to the point that many words like "Sustainability" have been overused and lost their true meaning.
Building an energy-efficient house and living in it is not achieving the ecological balance needed to be sustainable. This is where we realize that we cannot claim for ourselves to be sustainable at all. Or as Patagonia reflected in The Responsible Company:
"no human economic activity is yet sustainable… Responsible seems to us the apt, more modest, word to use…"
But what we can do is be responsible and work on our ecological intelligence by understanding our impacts, looking to improve (see Rethink as the first step to sustainability), and sharing some of what we learn along the way (through this blog, for example).
More info on a circular and sustainable system as opposed to our linear system, check out this video by Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff
More info on Passive House perspectives on energy and ecology: https://passipedia.org/basics/energy_and_ecology
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