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How Your Home Fills with Carbon

Sharon Kyle: Reducing carbon emissions will not stabilize the climate, going carbon negative for a long time might. As long as we get power from fossil fuel-fired power plants we cannot even hope to have a stable climate.

We reported here several months ago that the world’s leading scientific body on global warming issued its latest report confirming what many of us have suspected: either we do something profound about greenhouse emissions or we will make our planet uninhabitable, if not for ourselves and our children, then for their children and the generations that might have come.

house energy

Turns out there are tools that help people to understand how they create pollution in there own homes. Recently I met with an engineer who is familiar with this technology. I asked him if he could give the readers of the LA Progressive some information that would help them be more informed about CO2 generated in their own homes.

Scott Peer wrote the following:

There are many tools to help people understand how their actions create pollution. Unfortunately most of the tools produce results that are difficult to comprehend in an intuitive way.

I hope to give you a way to think about some of the pollution that comes from generating the electricity that powers your household.

After doing a few calculations, it turns out that the power plant emissions for an energy efficient home would fill it with pure carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2 months, and that it would not dissipate for thousands of years.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation reported that about 39% of US CO2 emissions are from electricity generation. On average, US power plants emit 893 kg of CO2 per MWh (MegaWatt hour) of electricity generated. That doesn't give you a good idea of how much CO2 your house or condo or apartment is producing.

Using the density of CO2 we can work towards an answer:

CO2 density = 2 grams/liter at 1 atm and 0C (i.e. at sea level on a cold day, and more on a warm day higher up). So 1 MWh of electricity gives about 16,000 cubic feet of CO2.
A relatively efficient 1000 sq. ft. 2 bedroom, 1 bath house with thick insulation, double pane windows, a gas heater/stove/dryer, and air conditioning used only on the hottest days consumes a little over 4000 kw-hr/year (4MW-hr/year), which causes about 64k cubic feet of pure CO2 per year.

One should expect similar results for typical condos and apartments of similar size. With a volume of about 10k cubic feet for this home, it could fill itself with pure CO2 in 2 months based on its share of power plant emissions. Remember, you could survive in pure CO2 only as long as you could hold your breath.

Because energy use tends to be directly proportional to the size of a dwelling, this could be scaled for any size house or apartment. So any relatively efficient home or condo or apartment would fill itself with pure CO2 every 2 months if the power plant emissions were sent to the home along with the electricity.

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Inefficient homes will fill more quickly; some would fill once a month or more. This may seem like an alarmingly high volume. Imagine if you were powering your house using a gasoline powered generator. You would expect to have to put in another gallon of gas every once in a while, and that would produce mostly CO2 out the exhaust pipe. Recall the difference between picking up a gallon gas can and a balloon; gasoline is hundreds of times denser than CO2. Burning a gallon of gas produces hundreds of times its volume in CO2.

CO2 Volume in Homes

CO2 is generated, absorbed and converted in various natural processes, but these processes were in balance before the industrial revolution.

CO2 absorption and conversion have decreased since the industrial revolution due to deforestation, spreading deserts, increased ocean temperatures, and other factors.

Therefore it is reasonable to say that human-generated CO2 effectively persists until it is destroyed by solar radiation, which takes tens of thousands of years to have significant effect.


This is illustrated well on the planet Mars, which has an atmosphere consisting primarily of CO2, as it has for millions of years.

Therefore, if you had to keep your own power plant emissions (called sequestering) rather than having them spewed into the atmosphere, you could stack houses full of pure CO2 on top of each other on your own property, or perhaps fill a giant balloon.

Try to imagine where you would put the CO2 after 10 years; a balloon the size of 60 or more houses (or apartment buildings) would be on your property.

Where does the CO2 go?

It becomes part of the atmosphere and is fairly evenly spread all over. The result is that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 40% since the start of the industrial revolution, going from 275 ppm to 387 ppm, a dramatic change.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

The current level of CO2 has made the climate unstable, as demonstrated by the melting of the Arctic ice cap and other symptoms too numerous to list.

Reducing carbon emissions will not stabilize the climate, going carbon negative for a long time might. As long as we get power from fossil fuel-fired power plants we cannot even hope to have a stable climate.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive