Frankenstein again

Let me be your servant

It gets a little bigger every year. From its humble origin in Australia in 2007, an estimated 1.8 billion people participated in the 2011 event. The before-and-after images of cityscapes and landmarks are striking. Perhaps more noteworthy is the way that more and more major corporations are exploiting the event to garner some green for their brands.

Earth Hour has its detractors, but only one nemesis.

The critics have a number of gripes. The most common is that the event does not make an appreciable impact on global CO2 emissions. That much is true, but it’s missing the point – like saying the Prius is not the sportiest car on the road. Reducing carbon emissions and cutting energy use are not the purpose; awareness, solidarity, and momentum are.

Another objection is that Earth Hour trivializes the efforts that individuals and organizations must make to have a meaningful impact on carbon emissions. Participants may feel they’ve done their bit, and can go back to their profligate ways the other 8759 hours of the year. If so, Earth Hour does more harm than good.

I don’t see much evidence that this is happening. If you dig into the social responsibility section of most corporate websites, you’ll find that their Earth Hour participation is accompanied by extensive internal sustainability initiatives. More and more people are using online resources to check their own carbon footprints, and are joining social networks that inspire members to take their green endeavours further and further. Governments are implementing programs to encourage green behaviours. If a significant segment of society is treating Earth Hour as its sole contribution to saving the planet, I’m not seeing it.

A third complaint is that by shutting off electric lamps and lighting up candles instead, we are actually increasing carbon emissions. Burning enough candles to replace the amount of light from a compact fluorescent bulb emits forty times more carbon dioxide. However, during Earth Hour itself, its obvious that people aren’t replacing the lumens from bulbs with an equivalent number from candles. Were it so,  you wouldn’t see any impact on the amount of light emitted from buildings and landmarks. Instead, during the course of that single hour, people teach themselves that they can get by with far less light. Earth Hour participants are not swapping electric lights for candles on a day-in-day-out lumen-for-lumen basis, and nobody is suggesting they should.

One more concern – and the only that I will not refute – is that Earth Hour sends a message that carbon emissions can only be achieved by sacrifice. Do we have to give up the safety and esthetic benefits of artificial light to make a difference? Taking the idea a step further, do we have to accept a lower standard of living if we are to save the planet?

No. Conservation measures are the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. They are far cheaper than, say, building renewable energy generation capacity. When you compare the initial investment to the cost savings, the net value of conservation is often positive – certainly a more secure investment than the stock market. What’s more, conservation measures may well increase rather than reduce our physical comfort.

For example, if you curl up on the couch with your favorite book in a poorly insulated house, you’ll feel a draft blowing across your toes or down your back. You’ll also be spending more than you should to heat the place. By replacing old windows and doors, improving insulation, and replacing the clapped-out furnace with a high-efficiency model, you find that your sofa reading experience is more comfortable and your investments soon pay for themselves in reduced utility bills. All without you making the sacrifice of turning down the thermostat or lighting any candles.

That said,  some idiotically wasteful behaviours have to go. Like the guy across the street that lets his souped-up spoiler-sporting Mitsubishi idle with a window-rattling bass rumble for maddening lengths of time. If he must stop this antisocial habit, he may consider it a sacrifice. I definitely won’t.

So Earth Hour has its opponents. However, it only has one implacable enemy: Nuclear power.

Let’s take a look at the distinguishing characteristics of nuclear power. The electricity from a nuclear plant is referred to as “base load”, meaning that the amount of energy remains constant and is not adjusted to reflect fluctuating demand. By contrast, dispatchable generating facilities such as gas-fired plants are used to deal with demand peaks. As the level of electricity consumption rises and falls, a dispatchable plant can be turned on or off, and the output can be dialed up or down to match demand.

Nuclear plants are very difficult and expensive to turn on and off, and there is not much leeway to adjust their output. This is evident from the fact that when demand drops below a certain threshold – often in the middle of the night – the amount of electricity being drawn from the grid may be less than the amount that the nuclear plants are pumping into it. At present, there’s no way to store the extra juice for later. This leads to the absurd situation where the utility actually pays customers to sop up the excess power. Doing so is cheaper than throttling back the output from the nuclear plants. Any rational person should find this to be outrageous.

Earth Hour casts a candle-lit spotlight on this absurdity. If individuals, businesses, and institutions are all jumping on the bandwagon, demand drops through the floor. But it’s only for one hour. The utility knows full well that demand will creep right up again as soon as the hour is over. What options does it have?

Shutting down the nuclear plants for just sixty minutes would be hideously expensive. However, it may well be the only choice. Local customers won’t pay to take the excess power off the utility’s hands – most of them are doing their best to be visibly consuming little or no electricity. Export customers can’t help either, for the same reason (unless they happen to be in a different time zone). For the moment, at least, there’s no way to store the surplus electricity.

Any utility with substantial nuclear generation capacity is caught between the Scylla of an inflexible technology and the Charybdis of a transient downward demand spike. If I was in charge of such a utility, I would hate – hate – Earth Hour.

Technology is supposed to serve the needs of society. However, Earth Hour shows us that society is in thrall to the needs of our technology. We are not free to make the simple, well-meaning gesture of shutting off the lights for an hour in the name of saving ourselves from a global ecological catastrophe. Doing so actually costs us more than doing nothing at all. Make no mistake: If your utility depends on nuclear power, Earth Hour will have a cost. It will be high. You and I will pay it on our next electricity bill. No good deed goes unpunished.

This is all thanks to our misguided decision to invest in a technology that demands as much from us as we demand from it. What kind of monster have we created?

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