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Carbon neutral, guess again

Feb 5, 2007

 

I live on a boat in a marina completely off the grid. The only lines to shore are mooring lines: no power cords, no TV/computer cable, no telephone lines. In a world growing more concerned with global warming and greenhouse gasses, I thought I was carbon neutral.

I enjoy the challenges of generating power and managing its consumption both at sea with a towed generator and in a marina with a solar panel and wind generator. In Florida, the small wind generator is a marginal contributor due to frequent lulls in the wind, but the solar panel cranks out an average of sixteen amps per day in the Sunshine State. On an annualized basis, I generate about 70 kWh per year, more than enough for modest needs including computer and cellphone charging, stereo, and cabin lighting. I have learned to live with foot pumps and without air conditioning, TV, or refrigeration, (a well-stocked supermarket is within walking distance). I use a negligible amount of propane for cooking, and the marina supplies laundry and shower facilities.

My boat’s annualized energy load is about 60 kWh, far less than one 60-Watt bulb left on twenty-four hours a day for a year. So far, so good. My liveaboard life is carbon neutral if you ignore communal marina facilities, a little propane, and almost no gasoline.

By comparison, the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that the typical annual electric load for a small family home is about 11,000 kWh. That equals about twenty 60-Watt light bulbs left on for a year.

The shocking part of this analysis, however, is the cost of a cross-country flight to visit my kids in California. According to a climate web site that calculates carbon dioxide emissions along a great circle route between departure and arrival coordinates, one round trip costs about 3,000 kWh. That is equivalent to six 60-Watt bulbs left on for a year!

In other words, my simple and virtuous, off the grid, small carbon footprint, liveaboard lifestyle is overwhelmed by a single airline flight. It’s a losing battle.