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Energy Consumption: Home vs. Transportation

by Mark Hutchinson on October 29, 2010 · 5 comments

in Philosophy,Urbanism

There are many appeals to living in a Postgreen home. Some like them for the modern look, some for the increased comfort of a home that has no drafts or spots of significantly varying temperatures, some for the extremely clean air, and many for the very low utility and water bills. It is that last sliver of the population that I will focus on now, specifically for the corollary to those low utility bills, which is very low energy consumption.

After spending a lot of time researching buildings and adding a bit to standard construction costs we’ve been able reduce the energy consumption of our buildings to roughly half that of your typical code-built home, which is about as low as is possible without adding solar PV and/or forcing our occupants to drastically change their habits. This is a great achievement and we look forward to building as many buildings to this level as possible. However, what is interesting is that at this level of energy use other aspects of peoples lives, most notably their habits for transportation and recreation, become an even more significant portion of their total energy consumption.

Airplane transportation energy useageFor example, the rough numbers show that if Chad and his family (who live in the 100k House) took one round trip flight to Hawaii, their portion of the planes total energy use would be equal to the energy consumed in their house over an entire year (it’s also equal to 2 flights to San Francisco and 6 to Chicago or Atlanta). Similarly, if each person in the house drove just 10 miles a day in a standard car (or 20 in a spiffy new hybrid) then this driving would also consume the same amount of energy as the house uses all year (as would a daily ride of 28-miles on bus or rail).

My summary? If you like our homes primarily because of their low energy consumption then its good to be aware of all of the other pieces in your energy pie and see if you can adjust them accordingly.

If you would like to calculate these numbers on your own, I found it easiest to use kilowatts as the standard energy metric and be sure to use source energy (this accounts for the energy lost in burning fossil fuels to create electricity and refining crude into gasoline). For driving, a standard 20 mile per gallon car uses 2.14 kWH/mile and a hybrid uses half of this. For flying we assume 0.17 miles per gallon and 400 passengers to get 0.75 kWH/mile. For bus travel we assume 4 miles per gallon and 14 passengers to get 0.75 kWH/mile. For commuter rail we use Amtrak’s reported number of 0.86 kWH/mile. For light rail we use Portland’s Tri-Met reported number of 0.75 kWH/mile. Finally to calculate your homes energy use multiply your annual electricity usage (already in kWH) by 3 and multiply your annual gas usage in CCF or Therms by 30 (this converts CCF or Therms to kWH) then divide this number by the number of occupants. If you find any better sources for these numbers please let me know in the comments below.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matthew @ Slow Home November 1, 2010 at 11:48 am

Interesting article – it is critical to consider personal energy consumption as a total of home and transportation. Given this, some fallacies of logic would be exposed – all of the benefits of an energy efficient, modestly sized, inner city home would be moot if it was owned by a CEO who flies to Beijing every week. Although, I would argue that at least the modestly sized house allows the occupant the opportunity to change their lifestyle and reduce their transportation load. Travel, and flying in particular, is a real problem when looked at like this. Not sure what the solution is – staying put seems depressing.

2 Goran November 2, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Well argued. Comparing energy use by a home, verses the travel of the occupants, I wonder which problem is the easier one to address? PostGreen and Hybrid Construction will probably attract some people to Fish town who wouldn’t have lived there otherwise, making an impact on both, but is there anything else that can be done to help people move into the inner city to shorten their commute?

Why do people choose not to live in the inner city, or end up with long commutes? I imagine 3 reasons, but this is just guess work:
– Poor inner city schools or crime. Inner city areas that are affordable will have poorer schools, and perhaps a higher crime rate. Are home schooling or private school valid options?
– High cost. Inner city areas with good public schools are usually very expensive and affordable to only a few.
– Decentralized economic zones. Some urban areas have grown so large a single inner city center no longer holds all of the businesses in the area (commercial real-estate, and staffing, are too expensive), so businesses spread out to neighboring cities. You buy a house near one job, and the next job could end up being 35 miles away. New Jersey is an example. Most recently the financial giants have been moving out of NYC to Jersey, but with other industries, the process of NYC decentralization has been going on for decades.

Are there other reasons? Are there solutions?

3 Alan Carpenter November 6, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Great article

And it doesn’t stop at the pure transport energy cost – the capital and energy cost of the transport infrastructure is immense. I’d like to share with you this prescient quote from Lewis Mumford in 1956.

“The blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing. On the contrary, as congestion thickens and expansion widens, both the urban and the rural landscape undergo defacement and degradation, while unprofitable investments in the remedies for congestion, such as more superhighways and more distant reservoirs of water, increase the economic burden and serve only to promote more of the blight and disorder they seek to palliate.”

Until say 1900 most of humanity lived within walking distance of places of work, play and commerce. There is a recent push to return to such close associations, but retrofitting over a century of path of least resistance development is not so easy.

Does anyone know of any models for a complete personal energy consumption equation?


4 Mark Hutchinson November 16, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Alan – Stay tuned for my blog post on individuals total energy consumption sometime next week, in the mean time check out

Goran – Making cities fun to live in is definitely a goal of ours and Ill have a few blog posts on this issue in the near future. Nic and I are currently wrestling with Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, if you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend it.

Matthew – I love traveling also, so this is a huge dilemma for me. It would be one thing if we only traveled for leisure however many of us have set up our lives around the ease of travel. For example, I would have been much more hesitant to move to Philadelphia if I didn’t have the ability to visit my family in San Francisco without any great expense of time or money. With that said, I’ve accepted the fact that Ill have to make a few trips each year for important events such as seeing my parents, going to conferences, going to weddings etc. but Ill try to limit these trips as much as possible. The really hard part is dealing with the desire for trips to far away places. There was a time not long ago when it was not as easy to travel and yet people generally found ways to be happy and have enjoyable vacations. With that in mind I’m trying to dupe the travel-oriented side of my brain into believing that its the 1940s, Ill keep you updated on the progress. (On a side note, were working on creating a great semi-local vacation destination for the Philly and New York crowd because we think that market is underserved currently, let us know if you have any interest in this idea.)

Finally, here’s a great article on the broad subject of energy consumption, I especially liked the sections showing how that neighborhood went about changing their habits, the comments on the 2000 watt society and the quick summary of the big picture in energy consumption:

5 November 24, 2010 at 1:37 am

That’s an easy one, talk Jerry Seinfeld into opening a comedy club in the Catskills? And provide easy, cheap train rides to it?

Re: poor inner city schools – as more folks like Chad have kids the public schools tend to get reworked thru parent involvement. And check out this model, a school full of “poor city kids” where rigor and intensity has produced 100% college acceptance rates:

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