Today’s Solutions: October 05, 2022

When it comes to making the world a greener, more sustainable place, homeowners have a lot of power. In the US, 40 percent of total energy consumption per year comes from buildings. This means when property owners decide to make changes to their buildings to reduce how their property affects the environment, they have a huge impact.

Renters, on the other hand, don’t have the decision-making power to meaningfully alter their living spaces. Most leases allow only for minor adjustments to be made to the building, which can be a frustrating plight for eco-conscious renters. The frustration is even more warranted considering that renters are more likely to be severely impacted by climate change and extreme weather events.

So, what can renters do to reduce their environmental impact? Read on to find out!

Think about how you can change your space

As a renter, you may not have much influence over the physical structure of your living space. That said, there are always things you do have control over. For instance, what your home looks and feels like every day, and over what your household consumes and generates.

For renters who take care of the electricity bills, don’t despair if installing rooftop solar is out of your hands. Other options, like community solar, might be available to you. In addition, making your home more energy efficient may be even more essential.

What is community solar?

Community solar is pretty much what it sounds like—a solar array project (or “garden”) situated somewhere in the neighborhood or surrounding community. Community members can sign up as a member, usually for no additional fees, and get energy credits. In return, the solar garden sends clean energy to the grid equivalent to their monthly use. Members receive credits on their utility bills for that energy. Instead of paying the utility company for the energy used, they pay the solar garden for the energy it generates on their behalf.

Solar energy is steadily becoming cheaper, so that means people end up paying less money (many community solar members save around 10 to 15 percent of their bill) for your electricity.

“We really think it’s a great solution to helping the climate crisis and expanding access, letting everyone tap into all the benefits of solar energy,” explains Laurel Passera, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs at the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a collective of community solar-focused businesses and nonprofits.

Visit PowerMarket or type “community solar near me” into your search engine of choice to see if and how you can sign up for a community solar garden, which, according to Passera, is as easy as subscribing to Netflix.

Energy efficiency

Once you’ve optimized where your energy comes from, the next step is managing how that energy is used. Renters who own large, outdated appliances like a refrigerator or air conditioning unit, might look into investing in newer appliances. The newer models for such appliances will be more energy efficient than their older iterations. Renters in homes where these bigger appliances are furnished by the landlord, can try talking to them about providing an upgrade. In many areas, rebates can help offset the cost of updating large appliances.

Another thing that most renters won’t be allowed to do would be to open walls to add better insulation. According to William Higgs, a community resource coordinator at Elevate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works on energy efficiency and equity programs, “somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of heat loss in a home occurs through the walls.”  Still, improving insulation is a highly effective way of reducing the environmental impact of a home if this is possible.

However, an additional 25 to 30 percent of the heat is lost through windows! Renters can tweak their living spaces in important ways to reduce this efficiency loss. For instance, hanging up thermal curtains, which are designed to prevent heated or cooled air from escaping through glass, can help save energy. 

Another DIY solution is to use rope caulk to seal air leaks in windows and apply foam weatherstripping tape around door frames to limit draftiness. 

And don’t forget to replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs where this is appropriate.  Despite some concerns with overhead LED lighting and health, the efficiency gains are major.

Waste not, want not

Composting is another way to reduce household waste and prevent organic products from ending up in landfills. Food waste in landfills emits methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, while compost is helps knit carbon and nutrients into soil.

Conserving water also drops one’s energy footprint. Frank Loge of University of California, Davis, told Yale Climate Connections that “Water conservation was highly effective at saving energy, and cost-effective compared to other energy saving programs.”  It take electricity to pump water, so this only makes sense!

Look beyond your walls

As a renter, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the large structural changes that are required to make existing buildings more energy-efficient and climate-resilient. Don’t let this stop you from taking action. 

One of the first steps renters can take is to simply start a conversation with their landlord. There are a great number of them who also have a sincere interest in sustainability and ensuring that their properties remain standing for a long time. 

If you have a good, personal relationship with your landlord, consider mentioning your climate-friendly home improvement suggestions (like improving insulation and investing in solar energy). While talking about these potential changes, emphasize how they can benefit the property owner as well. Climate change brings on more extreme weather events that can threaten the physical infrastructure of their property. Bringing this to the attention of the landlord is in everyone’s best interest.

Renters can also reach out to neighbors in their community to see how others around them are faring on ecological issues. This can lead to neighborhood collaboration and organization. If an established local tenants’ rights group already exists, connect with it for support and assistance. On a grander scale, you can also seek out ways (often through such organized local groups) to advocate for policy changes that will benefit the larger community.  And don’t forget to use the power of your vote.

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