More Reliance on Renewables, Efficient Vehicles and Better Buildings Means Less Reliance on Heat-Trapping Fossil Fuels
By: Emerson McManus
Just north of Omaha, a nearly finished house crowns the peak of a hill. The one-story structure with a sea-foam-green roof is surrounded by native grasses bending in the wind and neat stacks of chopped firewood. Birds sing in the distance.
Although the house is near a major city, the landscape is rich and green, full of rolling hills, cottonwood trees and babbling brooks. The house boasts extra-thick insulation, windows only on the south wall and a recycled ceiling of ornate tin — just like many of the other fixtures inside the 1,800-square-foot dwelling.
This is a passive solar house and it has two primary functions: to reduce both energy costs and carbon emissions.
“I think with the passive solar, you can significantly reduce your energy footprint,” said Bing Chen, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
And, based on an array of scientific studies, that reduction can’t come soon enough — both nationally and locally.
In Nebraska, energy costs often mean depending on fossil fuels for electricity. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, coal produced approximately 56% of the state’s electricity in July 2020. Using data from three years earlier, a 2016 study found that Nebraska is indeed No. 1: It boasts the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the country.
“We do not understand quite yet the power that we possess,” Professor Chen said.
Enter Kim Morrow. She is the director of Climate Planning and Resilience at Omaha’s Verdis Group, a career grown from ministry at Lincoln’s First Plymouth Church and from a passion for climate activism. Until recently, Morrow headed up Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird’s Environmental Task Force, a group working to design finely tuned climate solutions for Lincoln.
Among the group’s solutions proposed during an Oct. 28, 2020 news conference: reduce Lincoln’s carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2050, increase resiliency to future climate hazards and integrate resilience measures through strategic city ordinances and action.
As far back as 2007, Morrow said she could see climate change “was going to be the biggest challenge facing [her] generation.”
Thirteen years later, her crystal ball appears to be on target.
In 2020, the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions linked to fossil fuel have reached unprecedented heights, while new environmental disasters dominate the news regularly.
To wit: 2020’s record-setting hurricane season pummeled the Gulf Coast with violent, destructive storms. Wildfires burned over 4 million acres of California, killing at least 31 people. Each of the seven calendar years from 2014 through 2020 ranks as one of the seven warmest years on record. A new climate clock estimates it will be about seven years before the world’s carbon budget is dried up unless significant changes are made.
Left: A wildfire rages in California in September 2020. Right: Hurricane Laura devastated Louisiana in August 2020. Courtesy of AP.
Closer to home, despite calls for increased renewable energy production, dormant railroad tracks in Lincoln will be used to begin carrying coal to Nebraska City daily in January 2021. The trains, two a day, will each be a mile-and-a-half long, carrying about 36,000 tons of coal per day.
For many, it is an alarming development.
“We shouldn’t start with our argument two steps back,” said Clinton Rowe, Ph.D., department chair and professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Yes, there’s a problem.”
Climate change in Nebraska can seem far away, separated by hundreds of miles from raging wildfires and intense hurricanes. But the effects are actually much closer to home on a number of fronts. Nebraska faces high risk for water stress. Rising temperatures threaten crop growth. Emissions from burning coal and heavy traffic exhaust both pose health risks for residents of larger cities.
But all hope is not lost. Many are working hard to transform problems into solutions. They believe Nebraska has the opportunity to lead by example. But leading by example takes work. “First, we gotta make the investment,” urged Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld.
Solutions in Nebraska will look different than in California, Louisiana or New York. But Nebraska is a state used to doing things a little bit differently. Talk to experts in the field and you will hear a familiar chorus: Improving emissions in agriculture, building efficiency, energy generation and transportation are key to reducing Nebraska’s carbon output and fossil fuel dependency.
“I really feel that there’s a role for everybody, no matter what your background is, or your field is, because we just need it everywhere,” Morrow said.
Climate change already has staked its claim on Nebraska, which has begun to feel the heat. The fourth National Climate Assessment’s 2018 forecast is grim: Temperatures are rising by about 0.15 degrees per decade. By 2050, the number of extreme heat days could double, while extreme cold days will decrease.
Meanwhile, the effects of and solutions to climate change are tricky, mainly because so many aspects of climate are interconnected. Deepak Keshwani, Ph.D., associate professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, calls some of these connections the Food-Energy-Water Nexus.
That idea is based on food, energy and water as dependent variables in industry as well as climate. In Nebraska, the corn, beef and energy industries provide a good example.
Here’s how it works: Corn is grown and sent to an ethanol plant. Ethanol is combusted to produce energy. The corn byproducts then are used to feed cattle. Cattle manure goes back into the cornfields as a fertilizer. And the entire process requires water — from irrigating corn to feeding cattle to producing ethanol.
“Some people actually call this a golden triangle because it actually works really well for our economy,” Keshwani said. “It’s almost like a dance right between these three industries.”
But climate change threatens this delicate dance. Warming temperatures and changes to the growing season imperil corn growth, which could threaten energy and cattle production, both vital Nebraska industries.
So, what’s causing the problems threatening Nebraska’s golden triangle?
“That has nothing to do with natural cycles. It’s all man-made,” Professor Chen said of the significant rise in carbon dioxide levels from about 200 parts per million in the 1960s to 400-500 parts per million in the air today.
Although the problems can assume many different aliases, they often trace back to a single suspect: Transportation, energy and industry all rely on fossil fuels.
“Our climate system is changing in fairly profound ways. And it’s changing because of human activity, putting more CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” said Professor Rowe.
A 2019 Yale study found that 57% of Americans think fossil fuel companies have either “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” of responsibility for damages caused by global warming. And as 2020 has proven, the damages aren’t slowing down.
So, what can be done to slow down environmental damage? Experts offer a range of possibilities.
Projects like solar panel installation or making the switch to all-electric vehicles can seem daunting and expensive, even though prices are declining. For homeowners, making changes to improve efficiency is a good way to save on energy costs. Improving a home’s efficiency also translates to lower electric usage and a smaller dependency on fossil fuels in daily life.
Fact Box: In 2019, coal supplied 55% of Nebraska’s energy production, wind 20% and nuclear 19%. Another 6% came from both natural gas and hydropower. Those ratios can vary slightly for homes across the state, depending on which utility company supplies their electricity.
Nebraska electric companies are unique because they are public utilities and residents have a say in electric production. While efforts to diversify the state’s energy profile continue and renewables grow, some Nebraskans also have turned to sustainable, efficient building to reduce their use of fossil fuels.
“I became convinced that we had found a solution path for significantly reducing building energy consumption,” Professor Chen said about his passive solar project in Omaha. The project is designed to create the prototype of a small, energy-efficient home for aging seniors.
Those whom Professor Chen calls Nebraska’s “Solar Pioneers” step in when efficient building is involved. They don’t always produce energy, although some install solar panels on their property and sell leftover electricity. More often, their homes are designed to use less energy and be more sustainable overall.
Guidance from the new Lincoln Environmental Action Plan recommends electric appliances and thicker insulation, but Nebraska’s passive solar pioneers integrate efficiency even deeper in their home designs.
Homes like these are called “passive solar” because they are adapted to the local climate and passively use the sun — combined with insulation, strategic windows and recycled materials, to heat and cool the homes. A passive solar home, if it isn’t fitted with a solar array, still uses electricity for lights and appliances, but it can mostly provide its own heating and cooling.
In Washington state, a Habitat for Humanity passive home’s up-front cost was increased by $12.50 per square foot, but heating costs were reduced to less than $20 per month. Professor Chen suggests orienting a new home to face south or placing a garage or trees on the northwest side for less expensive adjustments.
“In terms of what percentage heating and energy can be reduced, that can vary from 50% for doing things such as orientation, weather stripping windows and doors and adding insulation, to nearly 100% for heating, cooling and electrical production,” Chen said in an email.
Twenty-three miles southeast of Lincoln, in Panama, Nebraska, Lee Schriever’s home is hidden on a corner, shrouded by shrubs and mature trees. The passive solar home he designed and built himself is almost unrecognizable as the modest honeymoon cottage he originally purchased.
Today, the home is two stories tall with weathered wooden siding. The windows on the south side are large and well-insulated. An eave above the windows is designed based on the sun’s angles, so the home doesn’t overheat in summer, while ensuring it stays warm enough in winter. On the north side, Schriever built a berm up against the one-story kitchen and neighboring study, enabling the temperature to be regulated by the soil.
Another high-emissions sector in Nebraska is transportation. It is the third-largest producer of carbon dioxide in Nebraska, trailing only agriculture and power plants, according to a study analyzing 2016 emissions data by Dr. Adam Liska and Eric Holley.
And while transportation emissions did dip considerably during the tightest lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decreases in travel weren’t large enough or long enough to significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels.
Nebraska is not a state with cutting-edge public transit like larger cities or less car-oriented countries. While some cities have public transit systems, Nebraska is largely rural, with homes sometimes spaced far apart and from resources in nearby towns.
Because personal vehicles are something of a necessity in Nebraska, the amount of motor vehicle miles traveled is very high. Even urban areas are designed with personal vehicles in mind.
“Our city’s laid out so much for the private vehicle,” Morrow said of Lincoln.
Fact Box: In 2019, according to the Nebraska Energy Office, Nebraskans drove about 21 billion miles – the equivalent of driving to and from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which left the solar system in 2018.
Unlike an overhaul of the Nebraskan energy profile, reducing vehicle emissions is a fairly simple concept. How so? Removal of gas-powered cars would significantly reduce demand for motor oil and petroleum gas.
Today, introducing electric vehicles to replace gas-powered ones is an idea with traction. Both California and New Jersey already have proposed future bans on gas-powered cars, forcing a shift to electric vehicles by 2035 instead. The automotive market now offers more electric vehicles from pioneer retailers like Tesla, and from other older car companies.
“If you want to get rid of carbon output, the best way to do that is some form of electric vehicle,” said Jerry Hudgins, Ph.D., department chair and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln and Omaha campuses.
That sustainable change is just a bus ride away in Lincoln. This year the StarTran bus system received a grant to replace 10 diesel-powered buses with electric-powered . The new buses are clearly marked with a plug icon in the blue-and-green decorative wrap and some already run routes through the city.
Besides reducing demand for gas fuel, electric buses also don’t use motor oil and don’t produce exhaust, according to a Sierra Club report. Cleaner transportation allows more people to commute through cities without using a personal vehicle and contributes to cleaner air and quieter neighborhoods.
Electric public transit in cities is just one stepping-stone to lower transportation emissions for all of Nebraska. Other efforts focus on advocacy for electric train transportation. State Sen. Morfeld, who represents northeast Lincoln’s District 46, has proposed an electric train along the Interstate 80 corridor, from Omaha to Scottsbluff.
“It’s more environmentally sustainable, reduces carbon emissions, and then third, I think it would also spur a lot of economic development and growth along the rail line in a socially responsible way,” said Morfeld.
Agriculture is Nebraska’s most significant industry and it also produces 34% of its carbon emissions, which is almost five times more than the national average. Regions with strong agricultural economies contribute larger amounts of carbon dioxide emissions because farming disrupts natural carbon sequestration, livestock produce methane, products are exported and the scale of systems needed to produce food is so large.
Although Nebraska’s large agricultural economy may produce large amounts of emissions, agriculture is not the enemy.
“In many ways we are, in Nebraska, in the business of feeding and fueling the world,” said Professor Keshwani.
Nebraska also is known as the beef state, for good reason. In 2018, the state’s beef and veal exports alone added up to $1.3 billion. However, in 2016, methane emissions from burping cattle also contributed the equivalent of 13.4 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Whether cows burp or not can’t be changed. Their digestive systems function differently than in humans. Instead of digesting food one time, cattle have multiple chambers in their digestive system, one of which ferments food products and produces methane burps.
Some scientists experiment to see whether diets can change the amount of methane produced by those burps. One experiment from the University of California-Davis noted that seaweed added to cattle feed could reduce methane emissions.
Meanwhile, crop farming could see improvement in breeding, irrigation and use of byproducts. Each issue presents its own unique challenges and questions.
Irrigation improvement is a very local problem to solve, since neighboring farms can have very different needs based on local rainfall. UNL’s Professor Hudgins hopes to eventually see irrigation management on a micro scale, based on the individual health of each plant.
So, what’s the bottom line?
“Make good use of water that you do apply. And then of course, that directly ties to energy use,” Hudgins said.
Product diversity and value addition also would allow the agricultural economy to get more out of the same amount of energy and reduce waste. Using byproducts in multiple ways not only increases the value of the crop, but it also ensures that Nebraska’s Food-Energy-Water Nexus is more resilient to change.
As Nebraska faces increasing climate risks, change is necessary to protect homes, jobs and the environment, according to a number of scientists. The words “climate change” can spark anxiety about a problem that seems too big or too far away to fix. However, Nebraska has opportunities to make progressive strides.
As Nebraskans vividly saw after the March 2019 bomb cyclone, communities have an impressive ability to come together and support each other through climate disasters. Protecting the place nearly 2 million people call home doesn’t have to be divisive, experts suggest.
“I think the most important way Nebraskans can lead by example, I hope, is just being able to have civil discourse and conversations,” said Professor Keshwani.
The average Nebraska resident can’t singlehandedly convert the state energy profile to 100% renewables, revamp the entire agricultural industry or wipe out transportation emissions. But that doesn’t mean the average resident doesn’t have a voice to advocate for these kinds of positive change, experts believe.
“I think people would be surprised to hear how powerful it is for probably even one constituent, but particularly five or 10 that contact their state senator,” said Sen. Morfeld. “Put them in the uncomfortable position to say, ‘I’ve done nothing.’ That’s what senators need to hear more of and feel uncomfortable.”
Are “Granny Pods” the Future for Senior Citizens?
In Omaha, Professor Bing Chen works on his passive solar project — the last thing he hopes to accomplish before retiring. In a partnership with the Omaha Public Power District, Chen is designing a prototype sustainable “granny pod” — a tiny, eco-friendly home with aging seniors in mind.
Granny pods, or assisted living units, are popular in some cities as alternatives to nursing homes. They allow older relatives to stay near family instead of moving into more isolated conditions.
Chen’s granny pod will be designed with comfort and care at its core. It is also designed to be easy to manufacture. Currently, the price estimate is about $100,000 for a 400-500 square-foot tiny home. If it’s no longer needed, the home can be resold or rented.
What goes into the $100,000 price tag?
The tiny home is ADA-compliant with doors and hallways wide enough to accommodate a walker or a wheelchair. It will be fitted with an electric-powered, ceiling-mounted Hoyer lift for residents with less mobility. Professor Chen’s tiny home is also smart: A system will be programmed to respond to voice commands and automatic temperature controls.
Chen’s sustainable granny pod also will be extremely energy-efficient for both heating and cooling. Floor-level awning windows will guide cool summer wind through the house to 8-foot-high windows on the opposite side of the home. Because heat rises, this optimized airflow will keep the home cool. In winter, the house will be so tightly insulated it will take little to heat.
“The original desire on my part was the heat of 16 birthday candles will be enough to keep it warm,” Chen said. “That’s based on a Molly Ringwald movie.”
In addition to Chen’s ambitious 16-candle goal, this tiny home also will test methods for reusing roof runoff water to decrease strain on public water supplies while producing most of its own energy. And battery storage research with OPPD will explore backup solar energy storage.
All in all, the goal of the granny pod is to efficiently knit together sustainability, seniors’ needs as they age and a desire to maintain relationships close to home.
“I think people are going to start saying, ‘What alternatives do I have for my parents?’” Chen said.