Climate activists like 350 Austin are fighting to close the Fayette coal-fired power plant, a polluting behemoth that emits up to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (2006) Link. In 2018, the Austin-Round Rock MSA permitted 30,760 new housing units (Source: Texas A&M Real Estate Center). What if I told you that those new homes, over their 40-year lifetimes, will cumulatively emit the equivalent of 7 times Fayette’s massive annual carbon footprint? How many houses will we build in 2019 and the year after that? And will the permitted housing of each of those years result in another 7 years’ worth of Fayette level emissions? That means that just 3 years of AUS-RR residential housing construction could result in the equivalent of 21 more years of Fayette pollution! The permitting process for local housing is creating a huge carbon liability with the permitting of each new home, yet this is generally overlooked in the City’s efforts to clean up its act.
We all know that coal is bad, and fortunately political action groups like the Sierra Club and Public Citizen have been remarkably effective at preventing new coal plants, as well as causing existing ones to retire early. The rapidly dropping price of renewables and natural gas have also played a huge part. According to Wikipedia, Texas now has just 19,492 MW of coal fired power (Link). The Fayette plant, owned in part by the City of Austin, is rated for 1,615 MW, or 8.3%, of the Texas total for coal-fired power. The Austin portion of that plant is scheduled to retire before 2024. But each year, the Fayette plant continues its massive emissions. Groups like 350 Austin are campaigning to reduce this pollution sooner than financially optimal because the health impacts to both people and the environment are so significant to citizens.
Housing’s impact on our atmosphere
What we were surprised to learn is that, while we have campaigns to effectively reduce our supply of polluting energy sources, we are also locking in very large, long-term carbon footprints with our housing supply, and each year it grows exponentially. Austin is the #1 housing market in the USA, according to the Urban Land Institute, which makes the problem that much more urgent – and also represents a huge opportunity.
The following table shows data from the CoolPlanet website regarding average carbon footprints per household in the Austin-Round Rock area.
|Zip code or area||Average Carbon Footprint / household (tons CO2 equivalent)|
|Austin 78717 (Williamson County)||70.5|
|Dripping Springs, 78620||65.3|
These numbers represent averages; the ranges can be much broader, as average includes multi-family and condominium living as well. So, when we say that the average is 70 for all of the housing, there is real data to say that the construction of single family housing alone could result in a higher average. This average also includes all of the smaller older housing inventory in an area.
AUS-RR reported 30,760 new housing permits in 2018. At a carbon footprint of 70 tons CO2e/yr, and a 40-year average expected life of the building, that equals 86,128,000 tons (30,760 x 70 x 40). 86 million tons divided by Fayette’s annual 12 million equals 7: Thus, the housing permits of a single year equate to 7 operating years of the Fayette coal plant. What we want to emphasize here is that the carbon footprint is created by the design of the neighborhood, the land use plan.
But what about solar and wind?
But what about if we retrofit with solar and wind power? Let’s test the situation (link). For the following example, we will use zip code 78717 in North Austin, which has an average of 70.5 tons CO2e/household/yr. According to the database created for the California Air Resources Board (and thus extended to all of the USA), a household of 2 people and an income of $80,000 per year in this zip code has a footprint of 84. With a third person in the house, it goes up to 91. It goes up much more with a higher income. If we change the electricity in the house to 100% clean energy (i.e. solar and wind), the footprint goes down from 84 to 70 (16.6% drop). Now, let’s assume that in the original calculation they are powering their average 3 cars per household for 44,500 miles per year with gasoline at an average of 22 mpg. If we change that to clean energy, that will dramatically reduce the household carbon footprint to 45, thus a further 29.7% (down 25 from the starting point of 84).
So, going all solar for their three vehicles and household energy consumption can reduce their carbon footprint from 70.5 to 45, by 46.3%, which is remarkable — but not nearly enough.
Winners and losers?
If our goal as a society is to have a livable future for the next 30 years and beyond, then we need to reduce our carbon footprints by 10x as quickly as possible, from a national average of 55 to 5. We can’t do that by retrofitting alone. It will have to be by design and lifestyle. If we choose this path, we can avoid having to make many sacrifices and marginally effective expenses of retrofitting. Good design can make the transition much less painful. It also makes those real estate assets (i.e. regenerative) much more valuable, while high carbon footprint housing will become much more expensive to operate. This will result in winning and losing properties. Regenerative lifestyles can only be supported by regenerative places.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, we have the #1 real estate market in America right now. Real estate – properly designed – can be the solution to climate change. We can live more comfortably and happily in communities where our carbon footprints are a tenth or less of what they are now. We just need to start building those types of places.
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