I work from home. As I commute up the stairs to my home office, I confess to a certain smugness. Steaming coffee in hand, I think of those poor souls and their wasteful commutes, trudging out into the snow to scrape windshields, or commuting from suburb to big city.
But my smugness extends beyond time savings. I’ve always assumed that not using a car to get to work—not even owning a second car—put me squarely atop the moral high ground. I believe that online communication tools and techniques will eventually enable all knowledge workers to work some or all of their days from home. And, together, we’ll save winter.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, the closest thing to my employer, Lullabot, is Blue Tent Marketing, an El Jebel-based web marketing company of about 40 people. On any given day, more than half of Blue Tent’s staff telecommutes, says Chief Technology Officer Ned Lucks, and several, like account manager Jack Scherrer, bicycle commute. Scherrer bikes from Glenwood to El Jebel and back.
Lullabot, a 50-person digital marketing company, doesn’t even have an office. We call ourselves a “distributed” company. It allows me to work with New York and Los Angeles clients while “living the dream” in the Roaring Fork Valley. And unlike my Los Angeles and New York clients, I’m saving the environment.
Or not. It turns out that my zip code, Carbondale 81623, comes in way above the already-astronomical U.S. carbon footprint for total energy usage. Because of the Valley’s low population density and the relative wealth of lifestyle destinations, Carbondale residents average an annual carbon footprint of 57.8 metric tons of CO2, compared to the American household average of 48 metric tons of CO2.
So while four percent of the U.S. workforce telecommutes and while that number is rapidly growing, many of us do so from wealthier areas with lower population density. I decided to dig into the details to see whether I was carbon saint or sinner.
I called my friend Lisa Altieri, president of GoCO2Free, a Palo Alto-based company that is working with the California cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Fremont to reduce the carbon footprint of local households. Lisa walked me through the math, giving me a few key constants to quantify my own impact.
Burning one pound of gasoline produces about 19.4 pounds of CO2. What? Burning a very dense hydrocarbon—like the octane (C8H18) in gasoline—yields eight molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nine molecules of water (H2O). To do this we add a lot of oxygen. (Remember combustion is just really, really fast oxidation.) Turns out that oxygen weighs a lot.
But 19.4 pounds isn’t the extent of CO2 burned. We also have to factor in the energy used to extract the crude oil, transport it, refine it and then transport it again. Taking this “embodied energy” into account, Altieri gave me the constant of 28.3 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline.
So, back to math. According to the most recent U.S. census data, the average U.S. worker commutes for 50 minutes a day over an average of 32 miles, roughly the distance between Carbondale and Aspen. A typical American probably works 235 days per year. If we multiply that by our average commute, we get 7,520 miles. You can calculate your own carbon footprint, taking into account your model of car, energy usage, etc., by using the calculator at Terrapass.com. Assuming an average 25 miles per gallon, I’m saving about 300.8 gallons of gasoline by not commuting. Or, by using our constant, I’m preventing about 8,513 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
Burning 128 gallons of gasoline produces enough CO2 to fill the Washington Monument, and I’m saving more than twice that! I’m feeling pretty smug about saving all that smog. But hold on…
To work from home, I have to stay warm in the winter by heating my 1,484-square-foot home with our 1974 stainless steel boiler. That’s a little less efficient than working in an office with many people in a small space are kept comfortable with modern central heating and cooling.
Altieri instructed me to subtract the total “therms” from my July Source Gas bill from the total on my January bill to get the extra therms I use just for heating. What the heck is a therm? Apparently it’s enough for English majors like me to just grab these handy numbers from our bill and then multiply by the constant 17.4 pounds of CO2 per therm. So I multiply the 90 therms I use to heat in each winter month by five cold months, times 17.4 pounds of CO2 per therm. That yields 7,830 pounds of CO2.
But, I’d have to heat my house anyway in the winter, right? But let’s say I’m parsimonious and turn down the heat during the day. The average worker is away from home about 50 hours a week, taking into account commuting, lunch and working hours. That’s about 30 percent of the time. So claiming 30 percent of that 7,830 as my carbon footprint, I use 2,349 pounds of CO2.
So I’m still feeling good about myself for telecommuting with a net savings of—8,513 (no commute) minus 2,349 (extra heat)—6,164 pounds of CO2.
What about air miles, Altieri asked me? Ruh roh!
Turns out flying is the cardinal carbon sin of modern life. For every mile of air travel, figure about .58 pounds of CO2, says Altieri. I go to four retreats per year to work together with my distributed colleagues. Assuming the pattern of two retreats on the West Coast, one East Coast and one central retreat, I’m probably traveling around 10,000 air miles per year. Plus, shorter flights, like my favorite Aspen-to-Denver trip, result in greater emissions per mile because a larger portion of the trip is spent in the energy-intensive takeoff and landing. Suddenly, I’ve got another 5,800 pounds of carbon footprint to worry about.
“Sounds like it’s time to purchase some offsets,” says Altieri, referring me back to Terrapass. While planting trees is great, the best offset programs make direct investments in reducing carbon while also generating energy. Terrapass charges $5.95 per 1,000 pounds or about $35 worth to erase my flights. Terrapass uses the money to do things like buy anaerobic digesters for animal waste, capture landfill gas, or to derive clean energy from wind power.
Altieri also suggested that I could cut my impact by looking up my local utility provider to see if they have a local renewable energy pool. Holy Cross does. They offer both the Wind Power Pioneers Program and the Local Renewable Energy Pool. These may increase your electric bill a bit, but it’s likely the single most effective way to reduce carbon footprint short of buying in a plug-in electric car, or switching to an efficient electric heat pump for the house.
Perhaps a Tesla Model 3 will absolve my sins?
Seth Brown is the Chief Operating Officer of Lullabot and a Carbondale resident.