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Book Review - Cooler Smarter

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“Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living”
By the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Island Press Ó 2012


Here is a summary of some of the practical advice offered in this easy to read book. Easy to read that is versus the science and machinations involved behind the scenes, which you can get a glimpse of in the appendices if you wish.

First, the climate disturbing fact, the average American directly causes 21 tons of CO2 emissions - 2-3X what other developed nation's citizens emit. Here is a breakdown:

Average american carbon emissions

UCS used a pie chart with just the percentages; I’ve added equivalent gallons of gasoline and pounds of CO2 for a more complete perspective.

The Average American is a bit hard to picture, as he dwells both in the city and country, has children and doesn’t, lives in an average North American Climate with a little of Hawaii and Alaska, and he bought a lot of stuff years ago and is just setting out. For the book’s purpose it is helpful to get a sense for what average is, but for your purpose it is better to work up a good estimate (Appendix A recommends a couple Carbon Calculators).

Transportation: With home energy broken into two categories, transportation is the biggest single sector. Here the biggest opportunity is when you buy a new or new-used car. There are many cars that get over 30 mpg. If you are going from the national average of 20 mpg to “just” 30 mpg, you can save 2.5 tons (3,000 pounds) of CO2/Yr. If you go to a 40 mpg car you save 3.8 tons of CO2/Yr.!  In some cases, an electric car or plug-in hybrid make sense now to save even more.

I found it interesting that UCS uses 25 lb/gallon as the carbon emissions for gasoline. The “extra” 5 lbs is “upstream” emissions in bringing and distilling the oil to your pump. Using tar sands will add another 15%. But squeezing oil out of shale or coal will nearly double the carbon in a gallon of gasoline!

No matter what car you drive, you can save some pretty large amounts of CO2 by: 1) Think Before You Drive (walk or ride a bike, share one car instead of owning two, short-term rentals like Zipcar, combine or avoid trips, car pooling with another driver, or telecommuting); 2) Fill ‘er up with Passengers (car pooling with other riders, share rides to store or entertainment, slugging (like hitching but organized), or go extreme - use a bus); 3) Driving Smarter (accelerate slowly, stop slowly, tune up car, check tires, avoid unnecessary idling, don’t speed, take off unneeded roof rack, take out unneeded stuff, etc.)

They talk about the future of transportation and recommend using the least carbon long-distance travel – trains, buses, and then air generally. But, sometimes it is better to drive. They show a chart with various modes and assumptions (most not disclosed) on long distance travel. Not unexpected, single passenger travel by SUV is the worst (140 lbs/100 mile trip), but surprisingly a Prius with four passengers is the very best (16 lbs/100 mile trip). Not shown is the Leaf, with Zero 0 lbs/100 mile trip, when charged with renewable energy! But please note: Leaf is limited to one 100 mile trip per charge.

Home Heating & Cooling Energy: Again, the approach is to first find the low hanging fruit (low cost, sizeable savings). If you don’t have one, a programmable thermometer may be your lucky ticket. Or maybe even better you may have one installed but haven’t programmed it – if you do, you are among good company, as there are many who have installed but not programmed. Many models exist for between $20 and $100, with various bells & whistles. Most are even easy to program! Estimated potential savings, about 15% of your heating energy and emissions.

UCS recommend getting a home energy audit as a good place to start. We have three sponsors who participate in NYSERD’s Home Performance program, where you can get an audit for free or practically free. The result of an audit will be a series of recommendations on where the opportunities are to save energy and make your house more comfortable.

UCS suggest that energy saving projects should be evaluated as investments rather than simply looking at years payback. In an investment you pay up front for savings down the road; after the improvement has been paid off, you continue receiving profits for your investment.

The next improvement discussed is air sealing – plugging up the holes, large and small, that allow conditioned air to escape from your home and unconditioned air to enter (commonly referred to as heating the neighborhood). This can be a DIY project, but it is still a good idea to get an blower door test (how leaky?) and identify the big and typical leaks in your home with an infra-red camera before you start. Some houses lose as much heat through leaks as they do through all the other surfaces – ceiling, walls, windows & doors, and floor!

“Cooler Smarter” shows a house with the typical amount of leakage. This is nice, but better is to understand that the attic flat is the #1 priority (prevent warm moist air escaping) and the rim joist under the first floor is the #2 priority (prevent cold air from coming in). Because warm air rises, there is positive pressure at the top floor ceiling and negative pressure in the rim joist area, so sealing these areas is a great place to start. Whatever you do, don’t add insulation to your attic until you have completed air sealing there! Also seal around windows, they are often leaky and can be easily improved.

Another low-cost opportunity is to insulate behind your radiators and use reflective material to minimize radiant heat escaping.

Next, focus on your insulation. Walls need to be insulated as best they can be. With minor improvements, this can be limited, but with bigger renovations you have more opportunities.

Finally look at your big appliances – furnace/boiler and AC unit. USC mentions that air conditioning units have improved significantly in the last 10-15 years, so replacing these units can be effective. Note: people around here do not use AC as much as in other areas of the country, but use is increasing. Think about how much you use AC before you make that decision.

“Cooler Smarter” highlights the benefits of ground source heat pumps in colder climates and mentions the 30% Federal tax credit through 2016 as another reason to consider these innovative systems. We have an excellent ground source heat pump sponsor, Thermal Associates

Home Electrical Appliances & Lighting: UCS advocate that you investigate your electric use, as most homeowners have little idea about how much various appliances use. They mention whole house “Smart Meters” but these are necessary; a little analysis with an inexpensive Kill-a-Watt meter will help you uncover many truths.

The following chart is adapted from one in “Cooler Smarter.” I converted to National Grid rates for Cost, added CO2 emissions based on National Grid Lb.CO2/kWh, and added kWh for a more complete and relevant perspective.

Average american electric usage

Lighting is still be biggest opportunity for the Average American, and if you haven’t changed out your regularly used bulbs it may be for your too. But most of us are past that and probably have upgraded our refrigerators. If you haven’t upgrade your refrigerator, there are some good tips on making this switch. Plus there is a good discussion on clothes washers and dryers, another big opportunity.

Unfortunately, for most of us, electronics is a growing opportunity. It seems a day doesn’t go by that another nifty device doesn’t come out, or some new game or toy. I have kids (12 & 14) and the demand side is very hard to control! And, I’ve gone hoarse saying, “Turn off the lights.” Plus, I must admit, I’m not the best at turning off my computer and devices. “Cooler Smarter” mentions Hobbes Mini Power Minder, which is a simple device to help to shut off your peripherals when you turn off your computer, or if you want a little more flexibility and control there are a bunch of nifty devices by Bits Ltd that that will prove helpful and save you energy too.

“Cooler Smarter” points out that 1 Watt left on, as a phantom load, 24/7/365 costs about $1, at the average national price; that is about $1.42 for us. With 20 – 40 such devices you may have constantly on, this can be a problem. So it is worth tracking down the more egregious phantoms, the ones that are burning 10 or 20 or 50 or more Watts all the time. The tool to use is a Kill-a-Watt meter. Plug it in, turn off the device and see how many watts are still being drawn. Then decide if that particular device being on is worth the Watts drawn X $1.40 per year?

Finally, where you get your electric is considered. If you are fortunate to have sufficient PV, your use of electricity does not contribute to global warming (excluding the embedded energy, of course). In general our state is pretty good compared to many that use more coal and have less hydro or nuclear resources than we do. Our Carbon Coefficient (the amount of carbon we put into the air per 1 kWh of electricity used) is pretty good at .71, when compared to the national average of 1.34, while National Grid’s is even better at .50. But still we do import electricity from other states where more coal is used.

Still “Cooler Smarter” points out other options to be Greener by “purchasing green for a few cents more per kilowatt-hour.” This eliminates carbon emissions from your use, plus it sends a message to the utility companies that less emissions is important. Or you can “purchase renewable energy credits, or RECs, from a third-party.”

Food, Low-Carbon Diet: UCS have done a lot of work and analysis on the subject of food emissions and they describe it as a complex and varying problem. There are just too many variables, such as where the food was grown, the cattle raised, the time of year, etc., to provide a way we can specifically quantify or food related emissions our savings in most cases. However, they do provide some guidelines on how to move in the right direction, including:

  • Again, the number 1 opportunity is to eat less meat in general and beef specifically. The average American diet includes roughly 270 pounds, nearly four times the global average.
  • Minimize packaging materials. Buy in bulk when possible. Avoid plastic beverage bottles, they represent on average 7% of our food emissions.
  • Minimize food waste. About 14% of all waste sent to landfills is food waste. Nearly 60% of this comes from the end consumer. Composting a ton of food waste saves nearly a ton of CO2e.
  • Local food is not necessarily the better emissions choice because farm to table transportation is only 4% of the total and other factors can overwhelm this. Still there are other good reasons to support local farmers.
  • Organic food is not necessarily a better emissions choice, but like local food there are many other reasons why this is good to eat.
  • Avoid food transported by air, as this is carbon intensive – 30 to 50 times more intensive than rail or ocean.
  • Finally, when you eat out, look to patronize local restaurants that practice green, sustainable practices with local food as it available. “Cooler Smarter” mentioned a restaurant in Denver, but we have a bunch around here including Kim Klopstock’s South Fifty in Ballston Spa.

Editor’s Note: For dozens of ideas on how to save food energy, save money and eat healthier take a look at Nancy White’s series “Top Ten.”  Her latest effort in  helping you quantify your movement along this spectrum is her “Food Energy Quiz.” This is a difficult area to quantify, and unfortunately it is difficult to improve what you can’t measure, so if you have any ideas or sources, please let us know.

The Right Stuff: Fifteen percent of our global warming emissions are related to the stuff we buy. “Cooler Smarter” provides two strategies: “First, buy less stuff. Second, when you do buy things, try to think about their impact on global warming, namely, how efficiently resources and energy have been used in their design, manufacture and distribution.” Well, the first is obvious and great advice, but the second a little difficult to imagine, so the UCS provide some educational insight that is helpful.

When buying try to buy products that have less embedded energy [as manufacturers become more involved in providing this information it will be easier to assess this], or use less energy than the item you are replacing. Buy well made goods that will last longer.

“Cooler Smarter” also provides a chart of tons of CO2e per million dollars spent on a group of 11 selected categories. Obviously every thing requires energy, but interesting is that Water & Sewage top the list with about 3X the emissions as the next item, Transportation Services (mostly air-travel related). Other services (Health Care, Entertainment/Media, and Financial Services) are at the bottom of the list with about 1/25 the emissions per million dollars spent for Water & Sewage. Yes, water will be a problem – USC goes on to explain the energy costs of moving and desalinating water. Lawn & Garden is the third most carbon intensive of the items charted; both gas to cut lawns and fertilizer & pesticides are cited as causes.

Part III of the book, “Step Up, Connect, Transform” discusses what individuals can do to involve others in this effort at home, in their communities, at work and in politics. There are many stories giving examples of what worked well and how to start. First they suggest you talk with friends & family, much as John Johanson has eloquently done in his open letter.

Next, step up and take your enthusiasm to help your neighborhood or community. Connect with groups in which you are a member – religious, social, school, whatever – and suggest projects to discuss and reduce emissions. Initiate a neighborhood-wide challenge and “barn-raisings” (a group works on one house at a time) to reduce carbon emissions. The same can be done at work, except here there is a profit motive and marketing opportunities to enhance your efforts.

Get involved in politics. To make bigger and broader changes, we must get involved in local, state and national politics. Sandy Steubing has been working hard at these various levels and is currently promoting two environmental laws: Styrofoam Ban in Albany County and Reduced Vehicle Idling in the city of Albany. If you are a resident help her; if not work with others to improve your locality. To do the really big things we need to be involved in national politics too. Many accomplishments have been made in recent years, including the raising of manufacturer’s auto mileage standards and setting utility renewable electricity standards by 29 states, including 30% by 2015 for NYS.

Finally, “Cooler Smarter” culminates with a short discussion of Pricing Carbon by either a “carbon tax” or “cap and trade.” USC does not present a preference. They state,  “Currently, it doesn’t cost a dime … to dump unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere… No matter what technique is ultimately adopted, the core idea is this: Given the grave threats posed to our health and livelihoods, people (and companies) should not be allowed to freely emit unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.” My preference “currently” is for a carbon tax as it seems to minimize political games, is more transparent, more directly facilitates purchase decisions in the marketplace based in part on the cost of carbon, and is a clear incentive to develop less carbon intense products and processes. I’d love to hear what you think about this issue.  

Conclusion: This wasn’t so much a critique as a summary of highlights to whet your appetite. The book is a must read for those looking to maximize the effectiveness of their CO2 emission reduction efforts. It is filled with specific nuggets large and small on how to reduce your carbon emissions, and in between the nuggets is a lot educational material explaining the underlying processes involved in creating global warming emissions. Most importantly, the book meets it goal of helping you be more effective in spending the time or money you choose to fight global warming.

In sidebar excerpts throughout, “Cooler Smarter” explains in simple terms the scientific answers to a variety of questions you may have debated with friends or family, such as:

  • Is it better to use the AC or roll down the windows at highway speeds?
  • Are SUVs really safer or just more dangerous for the rest of us?
  • How does six pounds of gasoline turn into 25 pounds of CO2?
  • Does my fireplace contribute to global warming?
  • How does CFL lighting lessen our exposure to mercury?
  • Is bottled water safer than tap water?
  • Is organic cotton really greener?

Definitely a book worth reading!


Dan Gibson is Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community and Chief Energy Auditor and Solar Designer for He previously spent 5 years performing home energy audits in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program. He is also currently “finishing” their 100% Solar Home – Yes, three years in the making and it's not finished yet. He can be reached at or at (518) 899-2400.


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