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Climbing to Net Zero

Published: May 4, 2022

Mountain climbing has always intrigued me, straining towards a goal to be rewarded with a spectacular view.  If you walk behind the ancient monastery of St. Catherine’s on the Sinai Peninsula, you encounter a trail of rough stone blocks leading towards a portal at the top.  This surely was the inspiration for the 7th century monk, John Climacus, who wrote the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”—a classic prescription for a life of virtue, ascending from the bottom rung of self-denial to the topmost rung of spiritual peace.

St Catherine’s Monastery

Should we approach net zero likewise? It could be a bold last climb for we boomers who want to leave a positive legacy to the world. Boomers are the most privileged generation in U.S. history and have always wanted to make their mark on the world. With the largest transfer of wealth in history, who is better positioned than the boomers to climb the mountain of carbon reduction?

As the Norwegian SciTech recently reported, we boomers are generating far more greenhouse gases than 15 years ago. While we cannot undo the atmospheric damage that we have contributed to, we still can shrink our carbon footprints by reconstructing our aging nests, or building new ones.  

Moving a house towards net zero involves five steps up the mountain of carbon reduction. Each step is more expensive than the preceding. While there is some flexibility about how to achieve each one, it is hard to imagine a house producing at least as much sustainable energy as it uses without achieving all five steps.

Step One: Replacing. Change out what you already have to reduce how much electricity you need. Install LED light bulbs; replace water-guzzling toilets and showerheads with more efficient ones; then turn your attention to appliances. Buy an induction range and an efficient refrigerator. Consider a heat pump to replace your water heater. A heat pump works like a refrigerator but in reverse by concentrating heat, rather than disposing of it. Start by replacing your gas or electric water heater. Then install a ‘ventless’ heat-pump driven clothes dryer which not only uses much less electricity, but eliminates the need to expel air through the side of your house—which is a major energy loss in winter. Finally, replace your gas-fired furnace with a heat pump to heat and cool your house.

 From left to right: Ground source heat pump, Heat pump water heater, Heat pump dryer

Steps Two and Three: Enveloping. Aim to retain heat inside your house in the winter and keep it out in the summer. Your house needs to be sealed with a membrane to control the flow of moisture and insulated with some thick material to control the flow of heat. These two steps must be done in tandem as insulation without sealing is ineffective and sealing without insulation will hardly keep you warm.

The easiest and cheapest fix involves sealing the floor of your attic and adding insulation to contain the heat and moisture that otherwise would rise through the exterior walls. This step alone cut 30% off our heating bill in chilly Fargo, ND. But the surest path to net zero lies in the dramatic step of replacing windows and ‘superinsulating’ the exterior walls of your house. It involves removing the siding, building out boxes for the new, more efficient windows, applying a moisture-proof membrane, then thick insulation, then new siding. 

Sealing the exterior and insulating the exterior

The job will be expensive, but the results will reduce your utility bill dramatically. And there is a benefit not captured in cash. For aging boomer bones, a superinsulated house is remarkably comfortable—no drafts, no cold spots, no noise from outside.  A well-insulated house has ‘thermal inertia’. Should your heating system fail, or the electricity go out, it will retain heat far longer than a poorly insulated house.

Step Four: Sourcing your heat. Residents in the chilly north might tap the earth for “geothermal” heat. Plastic pipes are buried or drilled into the ground where they absorb heat into water and then the water circulates through a “ground source” heat pump (a box about the size of a refrigerator) concentrating it from 55F degrees to 90F plus. A cheaper alternative, at least for warmer climates, is to use an “air source” heat pump, which taps the air instead of the ground for heat. Whichever is used, heat pumps can heat or cool from the same device, which is most welcome as our changing climate moves to extremes in both directions.

Step Five: Tapping the Sun. The last step is easy but not cheap: providing electricity from non-carbon sources to run the heat pumps and other appliances of the house. The average home will need a solar system consisting of at least 20 door-sized solar collectors on the roof, and probably more. No other alteration of the house is needed, except to mount new electricity meters and a small suitcase-sized “inverter”, probably on a basement wall. Many houses have rooflines whose southern exposures are too small. But joining a “community solar garden” achieves the same goal—to provide the house with more electricity than it consumes.     

Geothermal drilling; solar roof

Once all five steps have been achieved, the view is magnificent. But is it worth the effort? Yes, for two reasons. One trend in construction is to enable seniors to ‘age in place’-- designing and building a home with every feature needed for living independently, indefinitely. With a changing climate and suffering planet, the challenge is to ‘age’ in a way that enhances the survival of the ‘place’—to connect continuing independence in living arrangements with ultimate dependence upon the planet for full life-support services.

Second, many newly retiring boomers will have time as well as money on their hands and might relish a challenge, particularly if they fear losing a concrete sense of purpose and structure after giving up their jobs. They will need to find bright architects and capable builders. And if they renovate, they will need to invest hundreds of hours in the effort.  It could be a satisfying way to launch a retirement.

So, start climbing the mountain!

Penance Portal, by Matt Sparks

About the Author

Stewart Herman, seated in front of a construction sign advertising LEED FOR HOMES

Stewart Herman has divided his life between teaching, raising a family, writing, traveling, and advocacy for solar energy. He taught religious ethics for almost three decades at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, after having spent half a dozen years writing books and articles on energy and environmental matters in New York City. Until recently he was an avid trekker—honoring the earth through the low impact of his footsteps, whether on his own in places like Crete or Ladakh, or with students in China, Jordan and the Sinai.  

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