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How to hack your home’s carbon intensity

When it comes to reducing your home’s carbon footprint, you’ve seen the same list of ideas over and over again: Replace your light bulbs with LEDs. Unplug your unused appliances. Get rooftop solar. Weatherize your home.

These are all important pieces of the decarbonization puzzle. But many of us already know about them. How do you go deeper? That’s what I’m going to cover in this blog post — the next-level sustainability strategy for your home: hacking your home’s carbon intensity.

Going beyond the same-old home energy-saving tips

When people seek to decarbonize their homes, most start with the familiar approaches: energy efficiency on the demand side, and rooftop solar (and, increasingly, storage) on the supply side. These are definitely worthwhile.

But here’s the catch.

If you go solar, you’re usually getting only a few hours of peak productivity from your panels. There will still be plenty of time (i.e., nights, cloudy days) where your home draws grid power. Today, about 60% of U.S. grid power is generated by burning fossil fuels.

One well-known solution is to combine solar with battery storage. At night, you can deploy solar electricity you’ve stored in your battery during sunny hours.

Because the prices of solar and battery storage have each declined by about 90% over the last decade (2022 cost increases notwithstanding), this strategy is increasingly attractive. But it still carries high upfront costs, even if the overall return on investment is often there. Plus, some homes do not have sufficient solar potential due to shade, trees, or roof angles.

Fortunately, there’s another way to shrink your home’s carbon footprint, and it doesn’t require major upfront investments. It’s all about hacking your carbon intensity.

Carbon intensity: What it is and why it matters

But first, what is carbon intensity? Carbon intensity is a ratio that compares the amount of carbon emissions to the amount of output of an associated activity. Often it’s measured as a comparison of emissions against gross domestic product (GDP). But in this case, the activity we want to measure is more electric than economic; we want to compare emissions to kilowatt hours (kWhs).

A good carbon intensity number is zero — zero pounds of carbon emitted per kWh. But carbon intensity for coal-powered grid electricity runs at over 2 pounds per kWh. To put that in perspective:

  • The average U.S. home uses 10,715 kWh per year.
  • Homes powered mostly by coal-fired electricity thus emit on average about 20,000 pounds of carbon per year.
  • To solve for climate change, that number needs to reach zero by 2050, if not sooner.

And here’s why you want to hack your home’s carbon intensity: It changes all the time, meaning you can find advantageous times to consume electricity.

During summer’s long sunny days, your carbon intensity could run close to zero if you have rooftop solar. But just a few hours later, when the sun sets and everyone getting home from work cranks up their ACs, high demand forces “peaker” power plants to come online (i.e., plants that only run during peak demand, and are typically powered by coal). A few hours of using peaker plant grid electricity can ruin your daily average carbon intensity.

How to measure your home’s carbon intensity

Until recently, you were typically stuck with the carbon intensity your local grid had to offer. But with the rise of the new energy landscape and connected home technologies, that’s changing.

One of the smart devices on the market that tracks your home’s carbon intensity: the Wiser Energy™ home electricity monitor is paired with the Square D™ edition of the Sense app.

Wiser Energy is a smart device that installs into your home’s breaker box and measures real-time energy consumption of every power-drawing device in your home — your laptop, your fridge, you name it. (If you’re curious how it works, watch this quick video).

The Sense app Square D edition shows you how much energy you’re using — and wasting. Leave a printer on in the basement? Leave your oven on? The app alerts you with clear data visualizations.

The Square D edition of the Sense app recently added a new sustainability feature: carbon intensity tracking and forecasts. Here’s how it works:

  1. Wiser Energy tracks your home’s energy use over time.
  2. The app then compares your energy consumption data to regional and national carbon intensity data.
  3. By meshing this data, the app assigns your home a carbon intensity score and tracks it over time. Once you have this score, you can hack it.

How to hack your home’s carbon intensity

Having all this data and forecasting means you can plan around those periods when grid power has high carbon intensity. Perhaps at 6 p.m., grid power will be most carbon-intensive, but around 2 a.m., it’ll be much cleaner. You could auto-delay your dishwasher to run 8 hours. Same goes for other appliances like your washer and dryer.

And if your home has has battery storage and a smart electrical panel, you could toggle from grid to battery power on the fly depending on the grid’s carbon intensity.

This may be a familiar concept in the business world — many companies pay energy managers to switch their electricity sourcing to avoid peak pricing. Wiser Energy allows you to achieve that same sophistication for your home, in the palm of your hand. That’s pretty cool.

The dual benefit is that electricity is most expensive (i.e., during peak demand) when it’s most carbon-intensive (i.e., sourced from peaker plants). So you get a double savings — on your electric bill and on your carbon footprint.

Make smarter energy decisions

Hacking your home’s carbon intensity is just one of the cool things you can do with a connected home. To discover more ways Wiser Energy and the full connected home helps you make smarter energy decisions, check out how these smart devices can solve the mystery of high electric bills.

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