December: Looking Back

Our goal for our 2016 Zero Carbon project was to learn, to tweak, and to make a plan for larger changes.

What we learned:

We can make a massive difference to our own carbon footprint through physical changes to our house, how we get around, and through our purchasing choices. It requires institutional change, too. For example, Alberta still uses coal for electricity generation, which increases our own carbon footprint. As coal use is phased out by 2030, our carbon footprint from electricity will drop massively.

What we tweaked:

To reduce electricity use, we replaced the freezer with a smaller and more efficient model, bought a drying rack to reduce dryer use by about a quarter, replaced lights with LEDS (for an 80% reduction in power use), and tweaked the use and arrangement of air filters.

To reduce natural gas use, we turned down the water heater, fixed leaks around windows, replaced a door sweep, and filled odd gaps. We are still working on insulting the basement where the wood of the house sits on the cement foundation, caulking behind the baseboards in the back entry, and finding a better dryer vent.

To reduce secondary carbon production, we reduced garbage and increased recycling, planted a tree which promptly died (we’ll try again this spring), changed driving habits to increase fuel efficiency, tried to waste less food, and ate more local food, and more vegan and vegetarian meals.

Our results:

The model to measure our carbon footprint we used last year has been revamped and comes up with totally different numbers, so there’s no way to compare this year’s numbers with last year’s. We do have some hard numbers for fuel use.

We thought we were driving more because of some lifestyle changes, but in fact our mileage is lower. Our total fuel use is down 17%. That’s mostly coincidental to our zero carbon project, not earned.

Our electricity use for 2016 resulted in 7.15 tonnes of carbon creation. If we were in BC it would be 1.28 tonnes. That’s the difference between more hydro vs. more coal as a source for electricity production. That means an electric car is not our next best purchase, and neither is replacing our gas furnace with a heat exchanger. Our natural gas use released 4.19 tonnes of carbon.

Our natural gas use decreased by 7%, and electricity by 12%, for 2016 compared to 2015. Many of the changes were done part way through the year. Our estimates for a full year after all changes are completed are 15% for natural gas, and 20% for electricity.

The total cost for the work was a little under $1000. A third of that was for an assessment. We deliberately looked for the easy and inexpensive changes to start with. After this, the price goes up.

What we’ll do next:

  1. We have some house sealing jobs to finish.
  1. As appliances die, we’ll replace them with best in class for energy efficiency.We’d get about a 50% drop in electricity use by switching all appliances to best in class.
  1. We’ll keep watching for developments with solar panels and solar tiles. If we get hit with a damaging hail storm, that might be when we buy, either solar tiles or panels to mount on a newly shingled roof.
  1. We’ll watch government taxes and subsidies, using them to move a little faster.

We’ve had a lot of fun with our zero carbon project, learned a lot, were constantly surprised, and are pleased with what we’ve accomplished. We’ll continue to make changes, but not to blog monthly. We’ll post irregularly, when something interesting comes up. If the work we’ve done inspires some changes at your place, let us know. We’ll cheer you on.

Maureen and Mark


Mark writes: In our posting about transportation in September, I promised to work on the efficiency of my driving.

I started by taking an online course sponsored by Natural Resources Canada. It’s designed to teach drivers some simple techniques to lower fuel consumption. You can sign up for it here.

The course has 3 main topics: Driving Behaviour (driver efficiency), Trip Planning (to drive a shorter distance by combining trips, etc), and Improving Your Vehicle’s Performance.

Here are a couple of interesting statistics, and a few of the pointers I got from the course.

Amazingly, there is one car for every two people in Canada. About 18 million light vehicles drive a whopping 300 billion Km every year. And the average vehicle puts about 4 tones of Co2 into the air each year. If we could drive less and more efficiently, that would make a big difference.

Here’s how we can improve:

Accelerate gently. Imagine you have an egg on the gas pedal. In the city, 50% of fuel is burned just getting up to speed from a stop, so this is the most important thing you can do. It should take five seconds to get to 20Km/hr from a complete stop.

Maintain a steady speed and anticipate traffic, so you don’t have to slow and accelerate so much. If you watch ahead, you can coast to slow down, which also saves fuel.

Avoid high speeds. Cars are typically most efficient from 50-80Km/hr. It can take 20% more fuel to drive 120Km/hr compared to 100Km/hr.

The course goes through much more detail on how to plan errands to drive shorter distances, and how to make your car run more efficiently (by reducing weight, getting a tune-up, and keeping the tires properly inflated).

Through practicing more awareness of my own driving habits and being more aware of other traffic, I became less hurried and much calmer as I drove. Somehow this awareness had made city driving at lot less… well, annoying!

And so far, I have improved my fuel consumption for city driving by about 20%.


September: Transportation

Transportation is a little simpler than other topics we’ve tackled. Basically, bike, walking and transit are very good, while flying is very very bad.

Trains are good but we don’t have them here. We have freight trains, and a tourist run to Vancouver that costs more than flying, but nothing else.

Flying is one of the worst ways to spend our carbon-dollar. First, it takes a lot of fuel to fly a plane. Second, “the fuel is burned at an altitude where it has, as a best estimate, nearly twice the climate change impact that it would have had at ground level.” (Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas, p. 60, Greystone Books, 2011).

Any alternative to flying is better. Of course, sometimes that’s just not viable, especially in a huge country like Canada, or for international travel. We’ll be checking out carbon offsets the next time we fly, our personal carbon tax on flying, until there’s an actual carbon tax on flying.

We do walk, use transit and bike. We could/should/would do more. We’ll work on that.

We have two cars, which in itself is a big carbon hit, before considering any mileage. We’re not quite ready to shift back to one (we were a one-car family for many years). Our mileage has always been low, although that’s changing a little now. We head into the mountains once a week, and our parents live on the edges of Calgary, far from our central location, and far from each other. It looks like our mileage will be about 30% higher this year.

Our 2007 Honda Fit and 2010 Mazda 5 rate “Superior” on, the top rating, and were both best in class. search page. The Fit is rated at 7.3 Litres/100Km in the city, and 5.8 on the highway. Our measured mileage on the Fit was between 7.0 and 7.9 l/100Km, which is pretty good as we mostly drive in the city. The  Mazda is rated at 10.7 in the city and 8.4 on the highway. We’re not faring as well here; our actual mileage is between 11.5 and 14 l/100Km. The very best conventional cars are at the 7.0 l/100Km mark, so we are doing very well with the Honda. The hybrid Toyota Prius is rated at about 5.4 in the City. Natural Resources Canada’s guide.

Fuel efficiency can be boosted by up to 30% with simple maintenance and some driving changes. These include avoiding aggressive driving, as fast acceleration and deceleration both waste fuel. Watch highway speeding, as fuel consumption is up to 20% higher over 90 km/h, depending on the vehicle. Avoid any idling more than 30 seconds, except to clear the windshield in cold weather. Avoid driving in heavy traffic as much as possible. This both speeds up the trip, and doesn’t slow down other people, so there’s a double carbon gain. Make sure tires are inflated correctly, and vehicles well maintained. Plan trips for efficiency. For more details, there’s a good list at

We’ve decided to try to improve the efficiency of the Mazda. For a month or so, it’ll be used only for city driving, to make the test clean, and driven only by Mark, who will try to develop more efficient driving skills. We’ve read this can improve efficiency from 10-30%. Mark will take a Natural Resources Canada on-line course on efficient driving.

Our vehicles are 6 and 9 years old. We typically replace cars around 12 years, when they start to become less reliable. That’ll be when we take a close look at alternatives.

At the moment, a fully electric car sounds brilliant for city driving, but we wouldn’t take it into the mountains. Calgary to Jasper is 412 km, and we drive it in one day. We can’t get there on a single charge. Someday there might be enough charging stations. Today is not that day. At the moment there’s only one gas station between Lake Louise and Jasper, a 232 km run. We won’t drive into the Canadian Rockies and risk running out of fuel. That’s just not safe.

We could have an electric car for city driving and a gasoline car for road trips, but that seems foolish. A hybrid might make more sense for us. We’ll keep watching the rapid and exciting developments for electric cars, improved batteries, solar roofs on electric cars, and dropping prices, and make the move when it’s time to replace a vehicle. Here’s a great article on the shifting cost of clean cars. NPR: It may not cost you more to drive home in a lower emission car.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to advocate for a healthy carbon future, including voting for those who support mass transit.

In October we’ll be digging in to food.