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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Not switching the lights off for Earth Hour

It's coming up to the end of Earth Hour and I've been watching my electricity monitor for most of it. This is possible because I have the lights on.


About ten minutes in, the fridge happened to turn itself off, so the only things we had switched on were the lights. The other 'background' consumption, the heating, is off, mainly because it's broken. The monitor fluctuated between 19 and 27 Watts, which is not bad for four 7W bulbs. Then the fridge kicked in and the usaged jumped to around 160 Watts for the fifteen minutes until it switched itself off again. During that time, we both turned our laptops on - not a flicker on the monitor, in spite of the fact they're both plugged into the mains. If anything, the consumption dropped.

Now, as the hour comes to an end, we have both computers and four lightbulbs on, and the monitor is again fluctuating between 19 and 25 Watts.

I have very mixed feelings about Earth Hour. As you can tell from the above, we did not yield to WWF's exhortation to Switch off your lights to show you care about climate change and protecting the natural world. Is that because we don't care? No, of course not. It's because switching the lights off is purely a gesture - the lights evidently use much less power than the fridge; how many people switched their fridges off? - and I'm really not sure of the value of gestures.

Switching lights off is very visible, especially in cities (not sure anyone would notice the difference out here in rural Wales), so it's certainly an attention-grabbing gesture. Having grabbed the attention, what message does this gesture convey?

I find this question very difficult to answer. I guess the most positive possibility is that a lot of people think, We need to reduce our electricity consumption to save the Earth. I nearly wrote power instead of electricity but I think that would be over optimistic. The lightbulb is quintessentially electric; I'd be very surprised if the concept of saving power by switching them off would generalise to other forms of power. This is unfortunate, because electricity is only a medium for transporting power; its generation can come from the dirtiest of fossil fuels or the cleanest of renewables. I don't believe that targetting electricity per se is necessarily helpful.

More specific messages might be even less helpful. It's likely that focusing on light gives people the impression that lights are a relatively big consumer of electricity. If I'm to believe my electicity monitor (and I'm still not sure I entirely trust it), lights, especially modern low-powered bulbs, use relatively little power. This could easily distract people from the big energy users, and leave them thinking that regularly turning lights off will make a useful impact on their energy consumption.

As for the actual impact of Earth Hour on electricity consumption, I'd be surprised if much of the reduction was any more than displacement. For example, you could not boil a kettle during that hour by having your cup of tea either before or afterwards. You could delay putting the dishwasher on for an hour. No doubt some people charged batteries beforehand so they could use electrical devices without plugging them in during that hour.

As for carbon dioxide emissions, the effect of Earth Hour could have been to actually increase them. A friend mentioned that she was planning to use a paraffin lamp instead of electric lights, prompting me to search out this report. To save you having to read it all, I'll tell you that the interesting comparisons are found in graphs on pages 10 and 12. The first of these tells me that a pressurised paraffin lamp emits somewhat more light than an electric bulb; 180 Lux for the lamp vs. 120ish Lux for either a 15W compact fluorescent or the 60W incandescent bulb (it doesn't seem a fair comparison to look at the much more feeble hurricane lamp).

However, the difference in CO2 emissions is far greater; 260 kg/year for the lamp vs. 80 for the incandescent bulb and only 20 for the modern, low power bulb (OK, it may not be fair, but the hurricane lamp still has higher emissions than either of the lightbulbs, in spite of much lower light output).

Earth Hour: A grand gesture that focuses a lot of attention on the issue, may distract from higher impact ways of reducing CO2 emissions, and might have increased emissions during the hour itself. No, we're not turning off the lights for Earth Hour.

7 comments:

  1. We observe this token jesture every year and use the hour as a chance to have a geography lesson and talk about things that are happening in the world with the kids. They love it and will remember it which is why I feel it is valuable. We also use it as a reference point for reminding them to turn the lights, TV and other gadgets off during the rest of the year too. I agree that it is only a token jesture but if it makes people stop and think it has a value.

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  2. That sounds like a valuable way of using it - I hadn't really thought about how useful it might be if you have children. Thanks for making the point :-)

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  3. Interesting post - thought I'd stick my two-pennorth worth in!
    We also observe Earth Hour, not by switching the lights off as advocated, but by turning the supply to the house off. This gives us a sense of what electricity means to us, as the gas heating also goes off. As Amanda pointed out, it provides opportunities to teach kids many lessons as well as spend some quality time together.
    I agree that it's in part a gesture, but there is scope for it to raise awareness. It's simple to carry out and has great visual impact. That's what's needed to engage Joe Public and hopefully make him stop and think. The people who understand your analysis of the initiative are probably the ones who are taking positive action anyway!

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  4. we don't observe earth hour here - I'm afraid i know of too many people who just dont get it at all.. and i think it actually allows them to think they have 'done their bit' cos they turned off the power for an hour. EG someone who carefully charged their laptop, so they would not be using power.....

    i can see the point of doing it to show your kids what life might be like without power etc.. but you can do that any time.

    I think of all those folk lighting their (parafin!) candles and wonder if they have thought it through...

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  5. Thanks for the comments - it's great to hear different points of view on this question.

    Ju, my post is addressed to people who are taking positive action anyway, because that's mostly the kind of people who read my blog ;-) I totally agree that Earth Hour has great scope to raise awareness, to engage Joe Public and make him think. The question I'm asking is, what does he then think?

    The danger, as CiG says, is that he thinks he's 'done his bit' just by turning off the lights for an hour, and doesn't actually think any more deeply about it than that. It would be good if it prompted deeper thought about power consumption, but I'm worried that in many cases it wouldn't and might actually backfire.

    Today I heard about interesting research on charitable giving: If people have bought a product that gives some of its profits to charity, they then give less to charity, to the extent that the charity loses out overall. There's a danger that the same thing could happen here.

    In general I'm thinking about adults. As Amanda said (elsewhere), kids tend to be a lot brighter!

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  6. A most thought provoking post and perhaps something WWF needs to think about with the messages/awareness raising it does re Earth Hour.

    Our local council is switching off street lights overnight in order to save money. I wonder how the savings would compare to e.g. them turning office heating down a little or reducing the temperature of their hot water in council offices?

    Thanks for your visit over at mine :) The nasturtium seeds are yours if you let me know your address via vegplotting at gmail dot com

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  7. Thanks, VP.

    I've enjoyed looking around your website - I think I'll be going back there quite a bit :-)

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