Monday, March 30, 2009

The Earth Hour has no clothes

Recently I received an email extolling me to participate in Earth Hour. It included an article that started like this:
Lights out in 84 countries for Earth Hour 2009

CHICAGO — The lights are going down from the Great Pyramids to the Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower to Sears Tower, as more than 2,800 municipalities in 84 countries plan Saturday to mark the second worldwide Earth Hour ... the time zone-by-time zone plan to dim nonessential lights between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to highlight global climate change.
The first thing I though of when I read this was: Do the Eiffel Tower, the Sears Tower, the Acropolis, or the Great Pyramids really need much if any lighting at that hour anyway? I mean I'm pretty sure the Pyramids did just fine without any lights at all for the first forty-five centuries.

If promoters of this event had been pushing even a day without lights, I'd be a tiny bit impressed. But an hour? For everyone to sit around and ponder what a great thing they're doing while burning petroleum based candles? One eight-thousandth of a year? And only lights - a small fraction of energy consumption. Nothing about heat or air conditioning or water heating or driving or flying or...

I guess I'd like it better if it were a more meaningful gesture. Turning your lights off doesn't save much energy, especially if you have energy-efficient bulbs. It doesn't even lead to a repeatable habit. People who turned their lights off for Earth Hour aren't likely to think, "Hey, that was easy. Let's do that every night!" And even if they did, it wouldn't make much difference in electricity usage.

If somebody's going to go to all the trouble to organize a worldwide symbolic campaign, couldn't they find something more substantial or useful?

We could all unplug our fridges for an hour (and clean the dust off the coils). Or turn off our computers. Or skip meat. Inflate our tires. Stay out of our cars for a day. Or adjust our thermostats by 5 degrees. Close our curtains on a hot summer day. Start a compost pile. Plant a garden. In other words, do something that could both have a noticeable short-term impact (a big dip in power usage) and show the way toward a long-term big impact.

Is it better to get a large number of people to make a tiny blip, or a smaller number of people learning how to take bigger steps?

No they're not mutually exclusive. And yes, some people will be sparked to make bigger changes as a result. But to me, it's the "green" equivalent of those "We Support Our Troops" magnets on the backs of people's cars - mostly harmless and largely symbolic.

Maybe I'm wrong. If electricity consumption starts a downward trend because of Earth Hour, I will shout it from the rooftops and dance a jig. In the meantime, I just wish that whoever organized it had come up with something a little more substantive.




At 3/30/2009 2:07 PM, Anonymous Matt D. said...

Earth Hour is organized by the WWF, which itself is run by a bunch of gangsters so I won't say anything in their defense.

But, just in Malaysia they saw a drop of 550 megawatts of electricity consumption (equivalent to 14 million fluorescent 40 watt light bulbs running for an hour). So you can't really say the effect is negligible because that kind of savings adds up.

Also you are completely wrong about people turning their lights off at night really not helping anything. Do you have any idea how many people (and skyscrapers) leave their lights on at night? I am sure that it adds up to a large amount of energy usage for most places.

At 3/30/2009 3:37 PM, Blogger Bucky said...

One of the things that makes me completely crazy about earth hour is that it didn't actually do affect greenhouse gas emissions in the least.


People don't understand how our electricity is generated. Starting up a large fossil fuel burning power plant isn't at all equivalent to turning on the gas-powered Honda generator in your backyard shed.

All those coal- and gas-fired plants burn the fuel to superheat water to make steam. And the steam is then used to drive turbine generators. These systems are precisely tuned to optimal operating parameters. It takes time to get them up and running and time to shut them down.

Everyone suddenly turning off all the lights at the same time doesn't mean that the electricity isn't still being produced. It doesn't magically appear just when you flip the switch.

I know that lots of people got a feel-good high from participating in the event, and that's all well and good as far as it goes. Which, sadly, isn't far.

How much better to have used that hour to send emails out to everyone at every level of our governments?

At 3/30/2009 3:42 PM, Blogger e4 said...

Matt - Thanks for the response.

Here's the thing though. Out of context, 550 mwh sounds like a lot, until you consider that the average American uses 13 mwh per year. So all of Malaysia canceled out the annual electricity usage of 42 average Americans. (Malaysians use 1/4 as much as Americans.) US household lighting is about 7% of household usage (and falling).

Even if every person on the entire planet turned off their lights for one hour, one day a year, what would change? We're using something like 16 terawatts per year and climbing.

Also, I'm very much in favor of cutting down on light pollution. Read my opening paragraphs again. I think lighting up buildings and houses for aesthetics is stupid and wasteful. But turning them off for an hour and then turning them all back on for the rest of the night, and every other night, is not going to change the world. If we can turn them off for an hour, why can't we leave them off?

Just to be clear, I'm not against Earth Hour per se. I just think all that marketing muscle could have been put to much better use.


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