Walking the Talk

As indicated in my 2007 resolutions, I am making a serious effort to reduce my fossil fuel usage this year. I have relocated to Aberdeen, Scotland, and this is giving me a chance to implement some changes I have had in mind for quite a while. It’s not like my energy usage was excessive before, but I saw some places that I could reduce. What I am really trying to do is to see how low I can go without making drastic changes (like moving into a cave).

Let me first say, “It ain’t easy being green.” Well, some things are and some aren’t. For instance, take walking instead of driving. I have been doing that for almost all of my trips since arriving here. I did without a car for the first 8 days I was here, and I walked everywhere. One day I walked about 10 miles. When I run out of groceries, I walk half a mile to get some more. Obviously, this limits the amount of groceries I can purchase at one time. So, while I have lowered my fossil fuel usage, it is not nearly as convenient (especially in this weather). Which is of course why we are so dependent on fossil fuels: We love the convenience. We like to drive anywhere, any time we want.

After being here for 8 days, I did rent a car until I can arrange to buy one. I rented a Peugeot 207, which was classified as a mini, the smallest car you could rent. I haven’t had to put gas in it yet, but my guess is that it gets around 50 miles a gallon. It took me only a day or so to get accustomed to the left hand shift and right side steering wheel. Those have also helped me to remember to drive on the left. I have only turned into the right lane once (and drove the wrong way down a one-way street another time). All things considered, I think that’s pretty good.

I wasn’t able to get a house that had public transportation both to my job and to the kids’ new school. So, we compromised on location. I am only about 4 miles from work, and if I leave very early (6:30) I have no traffic coming in to work. The worst thing is that the road is incredibly narrow and winding. There are portions that are so narrow that I cringe when someone passes me. I have asked a couple of people about riding my bike in on that road, and they just laugh and ask if I have a death wish. I do not, so biking is probably out. In fact, I don’t feel particularly safe in my small car on this road, so I drive very slowly. We are on the bus route for the kids’ school, though, so we will be able to keep our trips to a minimum.

Regarding the house, I was looking for energy efficiency. The house we got into has a lot of southern exposure, and it is very well lit. There is a very large skylight upstairs, which really minimizes the need for lighting. There is a programmable thermostat that controls both the hot water and the heating for the house. Right now, since I am alone in the house, I have the hot water coming on just before I get up in the morning, and then back off just as I leave. Ditto the heating for the house, except I also program it to come back on just before I come back home. I should have known that this was the house for me when I walked in and there was a copy of Twilight in the Desert on the coffee table.

We have curb-side recycling for paper, plastics, bottles, and cans, and there is also a recycling center near by. This is much easier than many places in the states, where you often have to go well out of your way to recycle.

Overall, I am pleased at the progress I have made in reducing my fossil fuel input. Due to the high gasoline prices here, there is also a significant cost savings from minimizing fossil fuel usage. I just have to keep the momentum going when the rest of the family arrives. We are going to have to break the habit of leaving lights, PlayStations, and computers on when not in use. But other than some inconvenience, I have managed to greatly lower my fossil fuel consumption without too much trouble.

Incidentally, I do not have Internet at home yet. That is going to be at least another week, so it may take a few days to answer responses or e-mails. The only access I have is from work, and I want to limit that to my lunch period.

21 thoughts on “Walking the Talk”

  1. Robert – Not so easy is it? It really depends on how you value your time. That is why I think that even heavily taxing fuels will only chang ehabits on the margin, but not totally.

    The IRS says in 2007 it allows $0.485 per mile. The average person walks at 3 miles/hr. So the opportunity cost of walking is only $1.45 / hr!

    Even if you quadruple this cost, my time is worth more than that.

    I live in the suburbs of a big city exactly 15 miles from work. It takes me 45 minutes to drive to work and 25 minutes to get home. Using the IRS allowance, my commute costs me $14.55 per day and 1.17 hours. Versus walking this saves me 8.83 hours. So my driving cost is $1.65 per hour.

    Energy, when thought of as a labor saving device, is an incredible bargain!

  2. OK, so you argue that I should move closer to work. When we bought our house 3 years ago we considered that. My kids school is just 2.5 miles from the office. There were several homes available in the area. On average they were around $50,000 more for roughly the same house.

    Let’s assume that commute costs are the ONLY thing driving our decision. Assume that I pay a 5% interest (3.5% after tax) and that I work/commute 230 days per year (52 weeks less 10 days holidays less 4 weeks vacation).

    I could walk the same 5 mile commute in about slightly more than I drive today. But lets assume I drive, saving 25 commute miles per day. At $0.485/mile, I would save $12.13 in commute costs per day. At 230 work days a year that translates into $2,790 in commute costs.

    However, saving that $2,790 cost me $50,000 in additional home loans at an after tax cost of $1,750 per year. That makes my actual savings only $1,040/year.

    Not much difference. If you figure in other factors (resale value, crime, etc.) commute time and costs just aren’t that significant.

  3. -sigh-

    Why do some Americans have the tendency to make EVERYTHING about dollars.

    If I understand Rober’s efforts at all, they are about gallons and maybe CO2 tons, but not directly about dollars per se.

    Excellent change in mindset RR, I congratulate you.

    Let me illustrate a couple of other things you might be interested in:

    – Just that fact that you are probably out of US Urban sprawl, probably makes you twice as energy efficient BY DEFAULT, due to systemic consumption savings. Look at UNDP/OECD data on oil use/km2 for various cities, to know what I mean. Not that you want to stop there, but just an observation.

    – Doubling the insulation in your attic will significantly reduce heating costs (if it’s electricity in your case and it’s from hydro then the savings are not direct).

    – It’s possible to cycle safely almost everywhere. It just takes some basic rules of conduct. BTW, I recommend “Effective Cycling” by Forester, if you are interested in cycling more.

    – Food. This is a big decision, something everybody can consider for themselves. Beef is a huge consumer of fossil fuels when compared to vegan food on “proteins/energy or arable land used for production” basis. Also, cattle methane is one of the biggest green house gas sources on the whole planet. Just switching to poultry would cut down energy use by a factor or 10 or so (mostly fossil based). Switching to mainly fish based protein would half that again. Switching to pure vegan would roughly half that again. But then again, maybe you are on this type of diet already.

    – Buying local. I don’t know what produce is available locally, but this can make a significant impact in fossil fuel consumption. Foodmiles is a decent measure to look up on this, if you are interested to find out more.

    Other than that, thanks for all the great posts here and at TOD!

  4. samu

    You haven’t seen British roads if you think it is safe to cycle everywhere. Nor British drivers (who are generally pretty good, much more skilled than American ones on average, but they drive *fast* and they accelerate *fast*. Cyclists (and pedestrians) do not compute).

    I have lost track of the number of friends, acquaintances, local people who have been knocked down and killed/maimed in car or truck on bicycle incidents. The majority of which seem to be hit and run– the driver either doesn’t notice, or speeds off to avoid the consequences.

    My in laws will do 50 miles an hour down a country lane. A 1-lane country lane, with hedges on each side.

    And then there are roundabouts, where a driver will drive straight through you if you are on a cycle, without seeing you. Roundabouts are ubiquitous here.

    I could talk about drivers and mobile phones– illegality does not have any apparent impact on the worst offenders.

    Also Robert lives in *Scotland*. Check the latitude of Aberdeen on a map, and compare it to a similar latitude in North America. The net effect is that the day, right now, is probably only about 7 hours long. That means you commute to and from work, in the dark.

    I grew up bicycling in North America, but I would not do so here.

    As to other energy saving measures, Robert rents, so he can’t solve the insulation problem.

    The Scots are a wee bit better about this than us English, but you would be amazed at how little insulation many homes have. Central heating was unknown here before the 1960s, and the houses are not built to stay warm.

    Something like 3/4 of houses, for example, do not have wall cavity insulation.

    There are some other tricks. That digital set top box (which all TVs will require post 2012) burns power like the blazes when it is switched off.

    Let’s not forget PCs, routers, mobile phone chargers etc.

    You will find an air conditioned store will leave its doors open in hot weather. Closed doors would imply that it was not open for business.

    Chillers (aka fridge cabinets) in grocery stores are pretty much all open-faced, so none of this door closing malarkey.

    Similarly office workers will open windows in all weather, to get some ‘fresh air’. The standard of HVAC is 20 years behind North America (and the rest).

    Modern British homes have tiny windows. This is the preferred fashion (privacy and also a ‘pseudo traditional’ look). It’s needless (since steel was put into construction, there’s no limit on how wide a window frame can be), but I’ve been in lots of houses where you need a light to read in broad daylight.

    The rail system is of course a national joke. It’s half as expensive to fly to Edinburgh from London as it is to take the train.

    Did I mention the subsidy level on the above is 6 times what it was when it was still under state control? And on busy routes, the train companies are *reducing* services, because they have no incentive to lease more rolling stock.

    I could rabbit on, but suffice it to say we Brits might be economical with our energy, but only because we have lower incomes than Americans, rather than because of any national impetus to do anything particularly wise.


  5. RR moved from Montana to Aberdeen, he probably lives in more sprawl now than he did before.

    This american is an engineer by education but my advance degrees are in Operations Research. It is the way I think. But I believe that economics and dollars explain human behavior far better than other value systems.

    I believe that economics and opportunity costs are missing from the whole debate on peak oil and theories around global warming.

    I see the argument dominated by the evils of energy use with little or no consideration of the positive benefits of energy consumption.

    If you really want to live a low-carbon lifestyle then move to western Africa and live like the residents there. I’m sure you won’t like it very much.

  6. RR and I work for the same company. I lived in England on a temporary assignment for 2 years and never had a car. My flat was less than a block from the office and a 5 minute walk to the train station.

    I can attest to Vt’s version. Biking (and walking) can be very hazardous anywhere in the UK.

    He is also right about incomes and energy use. Americans use more energy because the US economy produces more goods and services and because we have higher disposal incomes. Back to my point about the costs of walking vs. driving. If my time were worth less, I might walk more.

  7. Similarly office workers will open windows in all weather, to get some ‘fresh air’. The standard of HVAC is 20 years behind North America (and the rest).
    This goes two ways. Where I live, in Southern California, I often feel that if we could open a few office windows the need for AC would be greatly reduced. That is because the weather is generally (regardless of season) sunny with a cool breeze. So, the sun heats the building and the AC kicks in, even on days when the air outside is quite cool. A tremendous waste of energy.

    I can understand the concept of hermitically sealing the office building from the outdoors if you live in NA east of the Rockies. But out here that concept leads to a lot of waste.

  8. Ah, the old ‘renter’s delemna’. You can’t upgrade the energy efficiency of your dwelling but there’s no incentive for the landlord to do so either because he can just tack the cost onto your rental fee. I favour the stick when it comes to encouraging landlords to deslum their buildings.

    Personally I’m pretty sick of my refridgerator being 2/3rds of my electricity bill.

  9. Kingofkaty

    Even economists are now focused on ‘behavioural economics’ which looks at why humans do not do things which are totally rational.

    On the benefits of energy consumption, the problem is the unpriced externality.

    To wit, we don’t tax CO2. So it’s a pollutant that we all freely emit without regard to the consequences for the economy and the environment, which could be very large.

    The virtue of cycling to work is this. In a crowded urban or semi urban environment, it might take you no longer than driving or public transport (in London, faster).

    And you get the health and fitness benefits for free. Most of us probably see the irony in our expensive health club memberships, that we *drive* to.

    Americans consume a lot of energy because they are rich, but there are a lot of things that they could do to maintain those lifestyles, and consume less energy.

    ‘split incentive’ and ‘market for lemons’ problems are everywhere. A classic being your landlord has no incentive to increase energy efficiency.

    Similarly, coal is far and away the cheapest electricity generation fuel, simply because no regard is taken of the environmental harm in burning coal.

    If you believe in Peak Oil, the market is not properly accounting for the scarcity value of oil in its current price. This has national security and economic implications.


  10. Robert McCleod

    I am all for energy minimum standards.

    But remember if you force your landlord to spend money, the rent will go up. This is true of any improvement of housing standards*.

    I’m still for it though. We went so far as to replace the washing machine of the tenant downstairs– there were reasons we had to do this (to help another owner sell their apartment, which was having leaks from the previous machine which the landlord wouldn’t fix), but we also contributed in a small way to improving the planet.

    * the good news is that if all appliances and all buildings have to meet a certain efficiency level, over time the cost of doing that will fall– the market will get better at producing those more energy efficient goods and services. The bad news is that more expensive rental accomodation typically falls on those in society with the lowest incomes– ie tenants.


  11. VT – behaviorial economics might explain the popularity of a the Toyota Prius. Normal economics certainly can’t!

    We americans are a strange bunch. We will circle the parking lot several times to find the closest space near the door to the health club.

    Externalities can be both positive and negative. Pollution is negative. The cheap and reliable transportation that comes from petroleum enables the efficient flow of labor and goods – leading to greater productivity and higher standards of living not possible without it. That is a very positive externality.

    My problem with CO2 tax is that we choose to consider only one source – burning fossil fuels. But humans, pets, livestock, and all animals produce CO2. Should there be a “beef tax” because cattle produce more greenhouse gasses? Why don’t we tax people for the CO2 they produce?

  12. I’m afraid I don’t agree with CO2 tax counter-arguments or cycling counter-arguments.

    We ride cycles in Finland year around (not all of us) and it’s higher up north than Aberdeen, without the _immediate_ benefits of Gulf Stream. So, if biking in arctic climate can be done, it can be done in a temperate climate. Safety is everybody’s own concern, but I’ve ridden a cycle in (amongst others) Inverness, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. Survived. Can’t imagine Aberdeen being a lot worse 🙂

    As for CO2 tax and cattle methane: yes cattle produces methane and is one of the worst GH gas sources we produce.

    Does it mean that CO2 should not be taxed, because of that?

    Of course not!

    It’s like claiming we shouldn’t outlaw murder, because there’s a mass murder going on which is even worse.

    That’d be silly either-or argumentation, bordering on cognitive dissonance or reductive bias.

    We can tax both. It’s not an either-or argument.

    And in fact taxing CO2 via fossils is ALREADY taxing the beef industry via soy feed trade & cattle industry fossil fuel use on several levels systemically.

    Which of course does not mean we shouldn’t at least investigate whether to tax methane producing industries on top of CO2 producing industries.

    But I digress…

    This is about personal choices.

    You do what you want to do, but rationalising yourself to inaction, because it’s too “inconvenient” is exactly the mode of thinking that made all of us got into the situation we are now.

    Do you honestly think it’s going to solve the problem as well?

    Every action counts.

    Don’t delude yourself into thinking your actions are not needed, if you already believe in PO & GW.

  13. kingofkaty

    The Stern Review has looked at non point source emissions of CO2 and other fossil fuels.

    There is a lot that can be done there, in addition to what we can do in terms of CO2 emissions.

    CO2 emissions are relatively easy. Taking at source (coal mines, oil refineries, gas pipeline heads), we have to regulate and monitor very few entities to regulate CO2 emission (tax it, apply permits to it).

    Turning to methane from farming, or burning wood for fuel etc., life is more complex. But not impossible– different approaches may be applied.

    The Kyoto CDM mechanism is a stab at this– first world polluters paying for greater CO2 efficiency in emerging markets. Big and early wins have been made reduced CFC13 emission (CFC13 is 20,000 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2) from Chinese factories.



    One of the early ‘quick wins’ is on deforestation (see second reference above).

    As the other poster points out, the above is not about refusing to do something about our biggest CO2 emission sources, because we cannot do something about *all* our sources.


  14. Anonymous

    All I can say about cycling in the UK is try it, sometime.

    The problem is not the climate (which is more or less ideal) the – problem is cultural/structural:

    – there are limited or no facilities for bike parking, for showers at your destination (ie work) etc.

    I can’t tell you how many high metal railings in London have signs ‘bicycles will be forcibly removed’.

    – And we have fantastic bike thieves, across the country. I have friends who have had 10 or 12 bicycles stolen– you can bet by that time you are uninsurable.

    I have seen people confront bicycle thieves, and had knives pulled on them. British thugs are fearless.

    – But the main problem is a simple one: safety.

    The roads are not designed for cyclists, and drivers do not behave safely around cyclists. They ignore them, or get angry with them.

    Rural roads are particularly bad. People drive fast, and hedges are typically high– there’s nowhere off the road when you are squeezed off the road.

    I have seen cyclists attacked and harassed by drivers (especially women cyclists), or cut off and nearly killed. I have had acquaintances and friends killed or severely injured by drivers who either do not notice, or drive off to avoid criminal inquiry.

    In Denmark and Netherlands i have seen many arrangements made to benefit cyclists, safe cycle ways etc.

    These are rudimentary or nonexistent here. Hence my reservations in particular about cycling at night.

    Cycling is a big leisure pursuit here (sometimes without regard to walkers, farmers etc.) but as a practical way of getting around, it sucks.


  15. PS

    I should add, most of the privatised railway companies either do not allow bicycles on trains (especially during peak hours) or discourage them (maximum of 1 bicycle per carriage) on long distance and commuter trains.

    There *is* a movement towards Brompton Bikes


    they cost £700 a pop (and the rest with extras) but they are very very good.

  16. Hi Robert, Take care on the winding rural roads, the default speed limit on them is 60mph! I cant recomend lagging your loft highly enough, we’ve had an extension with more insulation than building regs demand and its made a huge difference to the house. I looked at solar pannels for that new roof or solar shingles, but the cost is prohibitive and would have taken about a century to break even.
    I’d hate to have to do it again but just buying the food you can carry really does concentrate your mind on what you need to eat. Its an excellent work out, you use someone elses energy to chill the food and keep it fresh and you probaly waste less.
    Good to see you’re in the UK.


  17. Just a few general comments. As I have no Internet access at home yet, I came in this morning to over 200 e-mails! Just catching up, so I will try to answer several comments at once.

    First, the house is pretty new, and it is well-insulated. The walls are very thick and the windows are double-glazed. I have the ability to turn off all of those constant electricity drains (like the digital set top box) and I do have all of those turned off. For some reason, I had thought most electricity here was hydro, but as someone pointed out at The Oil Drum, that is not in fact the case. I think the bulk is nuclear. I am not sure why I had the impression that most was hydro (maybe because my provider is Scottish Hydropower).

    Regarding cycling, I have to agree with the comments of those who warned of the dangers. This is the most cycle-unfriendly place I have ever seen. I think I would be safer cycling down the center of an interstate highway than trying to cycle down some of these narrow, winding roads. Right now, I go to work in the dark, and it is almost always raining. Visibility is very poor, and the drivers drive very fast. Nearly every morning I have someone riding my bumper. I have to negotiate a very busy roundabout. I honestly don’t think I would survive a week trying to cycle in from where I live.

    Cheers, RR

  18. I have asked a couple of people about riding my bike in on that road, and they just laugh and ask if I have a death wish. I do not, so biking is probably out. I honestly don’t think I would survive a week trying to cycle in from where I live.


    Don’t give up riding your bike to work yet. Once you’ve been there awhile and get the lay of the land, you will probably find safe, alternate routes.

    I lived in Germany working in downtown Franfurt, and rode my bike nine miles one way to work everyday — once going four consecutive months without driving. When I first moved there, I didn’t think the roads would allow it, but after getting a good topographic map and looking around, I found a network of side streets, farm roads, etc. that made it fairly easy, safe, and enjoyable. I had to innovate (on my route I went under the Autobahn between Wiesbaden and Frankfurt using a large drainage tunnel), but it was possible.

    Good luck. You may change your mind in June and July when it is light 18 hours a day and you have had a chance to get an Ordinance Survey map.


    Gary Dikkers

  19. Gary

    Germany is not the UK. Robert is absolutely right.

    We used to bicycle everywhere– as little as 55 years ago it was the major form of local transport. The climate is ideal for it.

    But the car rules now. It was deliberate government policy in the 1960s to make things easier for motor traffic.

    And Robert lives in the municipality with the highest level of SUV sales in the UK– Range Rovers, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers abound (it also has the highest average income in the UK, you see a fair few Porsche Cayennes and Mercedes 4WD, you know, the really boxy one?).

    So to add to the conventional dangers of cars to cyclists, you have the long stopping distance and driver inattention of SUVs.

    I would add tail gating is a national sport. Everyone here is in a rush.


    I’ll have to check on the power mix in Scotland.

    About 20% of the UK is nuclear power. So from about 11pm to 6am, you are certainly nuclear powered (electric storage heaters work on that basis, ie low rate charging at night, a tariff once referred to as ‘Economy 7’).


    However I


    Scotland has 3 nuclear power stations Dounreay, Torness and Chapel Cross. Dounreay is shut down (it is also famous for its radioactivity leaks along the beach there at the north tip). Torness is 2 625 MW Advanced Gas Cooled reactors. Chapelcross is 4 50MW gas cooled reactors– been in service nearly 57 years.

    So, logically, there is not much nuclear power in Scotland, as power tends to flow *south* not North in the UK (the interconnection capacity with England is being upgraded, but is 2600MW from memory).

    I would bet the bulk of your daytime power comes from Longannet (coal 2650MW station) and possibly from gas turbine stations fueled from the North Sea.


    looking at the map within, the major power station (other than hydro sites) near you is Peterhead on the North Sea, which is gas fired. BP had a project to sequester the carbon emissions from that plant, but has just cancelled it because they couldn’t get government backing.

    Your electricity supplier will offer you a ‘Green’ tariff, normally. However these vary in how truly green they are:

    – nuclear power is not counted as a green fuel

    – some simply make a contribution to a green organisation, rather than promising to source power entirely from wind, hydro and CHP

    You really do have to read the fine print on these. I decided they weren’t worth it, for the incremental benefit to the environment.


  20. Take care on the winding rural roads, the default speed limit on them is 60mph!

    This has been one of the most shocking things to me. I think 40 mph is too fast for safety on these roads, yet people always tailgate me when I drive this speed. It is very distracting. I had someone 10 feet off my bumper for 2 winding miles last week (at night).

    I’d hate to have to do it again but just buying the food you can carry really does concentrate your mind on what you need to eat.

    I am making a major shift in my eating habits. I am trading in meat for fruits and vegetables, and the meat that I eat is primarily fish and chicken. The cost is much less, and the health benefits are huge. Environmentally, the impact of eating meat is much higher as well. The only problem is that it is hard to get enough calories this way.

    Cheers, Robert

  21. Robert

    From an environmental and energy point of view, there is nothing wrong with a free range Highland cow or lamb or milk from same.

    It grew locally, on unfertilised food– grass which grows there naturally.

    It was slaughtered locally, it didn’t travel hundreds of miles to reach you.

    This would be even more true of free range (ie hunted) venison (deer). There is nothing more ecologically sound than local hunting, and Scotland has an absolute surfeit of deer, due to hunting controls, and the extinction of wolves in the 16th century, removing the top predator from the landscape.

    Contrast that to that tomato: grown in a hot house, or flown from Italy or Spain (or Israel, this time of year).


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