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Paul Rogat Loeb: Saving the world, one furnace at a time

January 28, 2009

Paul Rogat Loeb

Like most Americans, I’m guarding my dollars, but when my furnace died during Seattle’s coldest winter in decades, I needed to replace it. And when I did, with a high-efficiency Trane model made in Trenton New Jersey, underscored a lesson about what we need to do to craft economic stimulus policies that actually build for America’s future. And it reminded me that even the purchase of a furnace—a personal act—has great implications for the common good and the future that we all share.

My new furnace saves energy and fights climate change. It’s union-made, promotes American jobs, and pays back its costs in a reasonable time frame. It points toward how to genuinely renew America’s economy instead of encouraging the same consumption for consumption’s sake that has helped create our current problems.

Let’s look at what my $5,000 purchased. It supported Trane’s factory workers in New Jersey and in their main plant in Tyler, Texas, supported local Seattle installers, and supported beleaguered New Jersey, Texas, and Washington state and city governments through the sales tax I paid and the taxes paid by the companies involved.

In my personal economy, it meant I’ll save more than a third of my yearly gas bill and a commensurate amount of my CO2 emissions. My old furnace was a thirteen-year-old 70% efficient model that was down to barely 60% because single-cycle furnaces lose 1% a year as their burners corrode and heat exchangers get less efficient. The new one is 97% efficient and will maintain far more efficiency because its variable speed motor is much easier on its components.

I live in a relatively small and well-insulated house in a generally temperate climate, and I keep my thermostat low, but I’ve still been spending $850 a year on gas heat (solar panels take care of most of my hot water), and if I add in savings on my electric bill from the furnace’s extra-efficient fan, I’ll save roughly $340 a year at current gas prices, and more as fossil fuels of all kinds become scarcer. If natural gas costs continue to increase at their recent rate, 61% in the past five years, my investment will pay back in roughly nine years—a far better and safer return than I could get from any bank account or roller-coastering stock market investment. If I lived in a colder climate or had a larger or less-insulated house, the furnace would pay off sooner still.

I’ll also prevent the release of roughly three tons of CO2 every year.

So how do we make similar choices affordable for everyone, whether or not they have the savings to do this on their own? We can not solve these problems solely through individual action. We need to use common resources to support choices that will benefit us all. Imagine if the stimulus package being debated in D.C. helped people make such investments nationwide, combining direct incentives with low or no-interest loans, along the lines of those long advocated by Al Gore. Imagine if it prioritized energy efficiency and investment in renewables, particularly those that are American-made. That would be an important step toward a commons-based society.

I’m not saying high-efficiency furnaces solve all our economic or environmental challenges. Plugging building leaks, adding insulation and switching light bulbs give the maximum energy efficiency for the least expenditure of dollars. We need solutions that move us toward eliminating fossil fuel use altogether, like solar thermal, industrial-scale wind, advanced geothermal, ultra-efficient green buildings, and smart electrical grids. The 300,000-person Swedish city of Malmo already gets 40 percent of its residential heat (and 60 percent of its electricity) from a municipal incinerator plant and is steadily extending its district heating to the suburbs. We could do the same. But adding a high-efficiency furnace buys time—like scrapping a Hummer to drive a Ford Focus. It takes us part of the way—and if the furnaces are American-made, does so while keeping money in our domestic economy. If we could replace every furnace older than 10 years with a high-efficiency model, and mandate the same in new construction, we’d come out far ahead.

Every industry is hurting these days, and they all have their hands out. But if we spend seven hundred billion or a trillion dollars to jumpstart the economy without simultaneously addressing root problems like fossil fuel dependence, we may not have the resources to do so later on—or when we do, they’ll require far more sacrifice. My furnace upgrade was from necessity, but it symbolizes a fundamental choice about the direction of America’s economy, and therefore about the stimulus package aimed at reviving it.

We can continue to support consumption for its own sake, and that’s what we’ve been doing. But although $5,000 granite countertops look swell, they don’t solve global warming, heal our trade deficits, or move us toward a more sustainable society. Nor do endless truckloads of Chinese Wal-Mart goods for those at the bottom or the $3,000 suits, $100,000 necklaces, and fifteen-million-dollar mega-mansions for those at the top whose choices have steered us into our present crisis. At some point, we need to shift incentives and priorities. We probably need fewer people working at mall stores, and more manufacturing furnaces or wind turbines and retrofitting houses. Even if this means we won’t be able to buy as many cool toys as some Americans did during the boom, we’d actually be investing in the future instead of cannibalizing it. If we make enough of these investments we might even look back on this moment as a national turning point—much as we do now to the wise choices made during a comparable economic challenge, from which we emerged with a far stronger and more equitable economy than ever before.

This post originally appeared on OnTheCommons.org

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org

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