Because Rocky Corner does not have convenient access to public transportation, some people have said to us that we’re not really committed to sustainability, that the only truly sustainable communities are urban. That’s an attractive idea to believe, but the facts don’t necessarily support the belief.
Home heating is the dominant use of fossil fuels in the Northeast. The average home in New England consumes about 110 million BTUs of energy per year in all forms (not including transportation use) at a cost of about $2,500. That represents a mix for the region of natural gas, electricity, and fuel oil. Our Rocky Corner homes will consume an average of about 40% of that regional average (roughly $1,000 worth of electricity a year). Of that electricity, most can be produced by on-home photovoltaic panels, meaning that the grid-supplied electricity can be a small fraction. And grid-supplied electricity, without any special preferences specified, is less than 50% fossil-fuel-based. With a simple checkoff option on a family’s utility bill, it can be 100% from renewable sources. We will not have any direct use of fossil fuels in our homes.
An optional alternative in our homes will be using a masonry heater for supplemental heat, dropping the electricity consumption even further. (The LED lighting won’t need a lot of power.)
Those are numbers that are hard to achieve in a built-up urban environment. It’s hard—and expensive—to retrofit existing buildings to be as tight and energy-efficient as our homes will be.
So that’s one side of the equation: massive reduction in carbon footprint for home heating and cooling.
On the other hand, it’s true that most residents will need to use a car to get places, at least some of the time. Those of us who work from home or are retired will have less need for a car, and there will be many neighborly opportunities for carpooling and ride sharing. We may end up having some shared plug-in hybrids that can be charged with photovoltaic arrays on carports, too.
But let’s assume the worst case—fifty people commuting to New Haven five days a week in a gasoline-powered vehicle. It’s 9.3 miles from Rocky Corner to Yale-New Haven Hospital. That’s 93 miles a week for that commute. Multiply that by fifty people times fifty weeks, and you get 232,500 miles a year of driving compared with zero miles if everyone walks to work in their neighborhood. At 25 miles per gallon, that’s 9,300 gallons of fuel containing 1,060 million BTUs. So, using this worst-case number, that’s about the fossil fuel consumption of ten average homes (we expect to do much better than that, of course). In contrast, our homes will be saving more than twice that amount.
In addition, of course, we’ll be reducing our overall environmental impact and carbon footprint by raising a substantial percentage of our food, with the implied saving in transportation. That something that’s hard to do in the limited space available in an urban environment.
Lastly, one of the best aspects of living in community is that we can share our resources. We don’t all need a pickup truck, a lawn tractor, a snow blower, or even the kinds of shop or kitchen tools we use only occasionally. Maybe we can share a good sewing machine, a big screen TV, a quilting table, or a band saw.
On balance, Rocky Corner’s numbers look pretty good for a sustainable future in Connecticut.