Project studies city households’ impact on environment

The study is comprised of homes in Anoka and Ramsey counties.

Emily Mongan

In heavily populated areas, like the Twin Cities, the habits of individual families and households can impact the environment. A project run by the University of Minnesota is studying how much household energy choices influence the urban environment.

The Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project studies that impact by analyzing demographics and choices made by the residents of participating housing units.

TCHEP’s research is based on a database of 1,800 households in Anoka and Ramsey counties that responded to mail surveys and allow researchers to visit their homes in order to gather data.

Households submit data about their energy usage for electricity, heating, cooling, air travel and automobile use, and other household habits.

The information is then applied by researchers to a variety of smaller projects that share a common goal: inform federal and state policymakers with the hope that they will be able to craft more efficient and fair energy policies.

Initially started in 2009, TCHEP is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of California-Santa Barbara and funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Today, TCHEP has grown to be the largest and most complex study of its kind in not only the U.S., but the world, said Lawrence Baker, TCHEP’s principal investigator and University bioproducts engineering professor.

“To understand carbon emissions or energy usage in cities, you really need to understand households,” Baker said. “This is the first study of this type that has been done that has studied all forms of energy being used in a household.”

TCHEP data has been applied to several smaller projects, studying everything from lawn care practices to using street sweepers to clean fallen leaves in the autumn. This data is then shared with different programs around Minnesota, including local watershed districts and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Information gathered through TCHEP has also been utilized to create a home energy usage calculator available on the Minnesota Science Museum’s Science Buzz website, which homeowners can use to see how their household activities influence the cycles of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. This same information will be used to create an exhibit for the museum  expected to open sometime this year, said Sarah Hobbie, a University professor and one of the co-investigators in the study.

One current project under the TCHEP umbrella involves the concept of energy poverty, or the inability of a household to keep up with the cost of energy necessary for maintaining daily activity, such as having hot water and heating the home in winter.

According to a 2008 report by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, an estimated 5 million households received federal aid in order to keep up with their energy bills and properly heat their homes.

With the information gathered through TCHEP, Baker hopes to see a new metric developed for energy poverty, which in turn could help create energy conservation policies that decrease the issue of energy poverty.

“The information we’re collecting on energy poverty may really help craft energy conservation policy that’s a bit more tailored and doesn’t cause disruption with people who have real trouble paying their bills.” Baker said.

Professor Kristen Nelson, a co-investigator with the study who focuses primarily on sociological factors that influence a home’s energy usage, explained that the concept of energy poverty is especially important in the Twin Cities area, where a well-heated home is necessary during winter.

“There are people who are spending a disproportionate amount of their income just to get a quality of heating that is good for their well-being,” Nelson said. “We’re beginning to look at that and ask about policy and what role policy can play.”

TCHEP’s researchers not only hope to see their findings influence and inform policymakers, but also to help homeowners in the Twin Cities area think more about how their daily habits impact the environment.

“The goal is first to understand how human beings influence the environment, then as a result, think about what outcomes we want in our urban environment,” Nelson said.