It's been a half century since our planet's ecologic health became recognized not only as an area of scientific study but a matter of increasing concern. The early focus was on the status of our water, soil, and air -- major issues that now seem almost quaint as we confront the mother of all environmental ordeals: global warming.
Here's the situation in a very small nutshell. Greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere. The evidence is quite clear that human activity (mainly burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and industry) has spilled unprecedented levels of CO2 into the atmosphere. As the earth's temperature rises, the consequences unfold. Polar ice caps melt; sea levels rise; storms, fires, and droughts are more frequent and more severe; coastlines become less inhabitable. And these are only the things we know about now.
Note to climate-change deniers: stay after school and write 100 times on the blackboard, "I will wake up and smell the coffee." Global warming is real, the stakes have never been higher, and the challenge never as daunting. How can the people in a small community like Fairfield, a mere speck of a town in a corner of North America, possibly make a meaningful dent in a massive and complex problem like global warming?
I'm here to tell you that we already are, and that our future depends on doing even more.
"Think global, act local," an early mantra of the environmental movement, to me remains the Golden Rule. It means that the essential unit of action is us, as individuals, in our communities. Even as six billion people and their governments confront a global dilemma like climate change, each person is in charge of getting their own house in order. Every individual beneficial action, however small, amplifies the same action of others, unleashing the potential of an abstract policy. Individual efforts roll up into measurable community results, to be added to those of other communities.
Recycling is a classic example. In 2010, Fairfield residents lugged over 10,000 tons of aluminum, glass, paper, plastic, etc. to the curb in little blue bins, house by house, week by week. I have a hard time picturing 10,000 tons of this stuff, but I can begin to understand the impact this way: Americans recycled enough aluminum cans last year to save the energy equivalent of 15 million barrels of oil -- about the amount of oil the entire country consumes in one day. The national recycling rate for aluminum cans stands at about 65 percent. Not bad, but we can do better! I'm good for at least 300 Diet Cokes a year. I can drink them guilt-free, because aluminum is 100 percent recyclable. But it is my solemn duty to get each one of those precious cans into our blue bin.
If recycling puts you in a "think global-act local" frame of mind, let me tell you about two easy ways to get more of it.
This state-authorized program gives individual households the ability to displace the equivalent of 50 percent or 100 percent of the electricity that powers their homes with electricity generated by renewable technologies such as solar, wind, and biomass. In our market area, about 60 prcent of the fuel used to make electricity is from burning fossil fuels, about 27 percent is from nuclear energy, and only about 13 percent is from hydroelectric and renewable sources.
If you choose to displace the equivalent of 100 percent of your electricity with clean, renewable energy, you'd pay a little more -- just under one penny per kilowatt-hour extra. For example, if you use an average of 700 kilowatt hours per month, you'd pay an extra $7 each month for 100 percent renewable energy. The 50 percent option would cost $4.50 extra. This extra cost puts you in personal charge of your annual burden of CO2 greenhouse gas (about 7,400 pounds) while joining almost 900 other Fairfield households that have signed on.
Home Energy Solutions: www.ctenergyinfo.com/home_energy_solutions_core.htm
This program is a partnership of the CT Energy Efficiency Fund and state utilities. For a modest fee, typically $75, authorized technicians visit your home and do a comprehensive assessment, identifying and sealing energy-wasting air leaks on the spot, including up to 40 low-energy light bulbs and attractive rebates on energy-efficient appliances and insulation.
This program is a no-brainer. If you think your house is as energy-efficient as it could be, you are almost certainly mistaken. Over 2,000 Fairfield homes have taken advantage of HES, but that's still a small minority. The assessment results in average savings of $200 per year, and, of course, this also means you're burning less fuel.
Your involvement in these programs will be amplified at the town level. Fairfield is a Connecticut "Clean Energy Community," meaning that it has pledged to reduce municipal energy consumption by 20 percent by 2018, and to obtain 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2018. When households sign up for CleanEnergyOptions or Home Energy Solutions, Fairfield earns points toward free solar panels for municipal use. Some 17 kilowatts worth of solar panels are already in place, most of which is on the roofs of our three middle schools.
In a future column, I'll review the impressive progress Fairfield has made in renewable energy, especially solar energy. But right now, let's do everything we can to move ourselves and our town forward responsibly and creatively to safeguard the only planet we have.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.