Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earth Hour Smearth Hour

Did your household do "Earth Hour"? Ours did. But not after your correspondent was chastised for being cynical by pointing out that turning of the lights for one hour would do nothing at all to the level of Greenhouse gas emissions generated at the powerplants, since it takes at least a day to change the generating level of these machines, and any unused electricity on the grid would simply be "dumped".

It was nice to get my antique oil lamps out and to spend a quite hour reading in their gentle glow instead of doing the dishes, the ironing, the vacuum cleaning, the clothes washing and the one hundred and one other little jobs that had to be done about the house. I commented to my wife about the way artificial lighting has actually extended our working life by about six hours a day...

It was, at least, one way of impressing upon the kids the consequences of leaving lights on all over the house although--as this cynic also pointed out to them--they would do much more to save the world (and our electricity bill) if they simply put out the lights in the room when they left it.

Then again, we probably produced even more greenhouse gases by using our lamps and candles.

Ah, the trials of being a cynic.


At Sunday, March 30, 2008 2:09:00 pm , Blogger Arabella-m said...

No, I did not take part.

I think such things are often counter-productive. They provide good feelings but do little to change long term behaviour. It's a bit like recycling which seems to enable many to feel OK about consuming the earth's resources in unsustainable ways. The recycling process itself, at times, consumes more energy (& produces more pollution) than not recycling. The simple answer is to consume less - but of course that's much more difficult!

At Sunday, March 30, 2008 6:21:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Yes, true cynics care about truth. (A new aphorism on my part). Get real, I say. But that is harder to do than it is to say.

At Sunday, March 30, 2008 11:22:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Another Easter miracle - totally with you on this one!

And besides turning off the lights, how about turning off the TV (aka telly) when leaving the room too!

At Monday, March 31, 2008 10:10:00 am , Blogger Athanasius said...

Actually, I forget all about it. Insufficiently committed, obviously.

BTW Past Elder, I must apologise on behalf of my fellow countrymen. This Australian-initiated environmental bully-pulpit seems to have metastased into otherwise sane locales like your own. Or I suppose I should think of it as revenge for the eternal re-runs of Friends we get down here.

At Tuesday, April 01, 2008 1:37:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

“Are you sure that the output of generators can be manipulated to such a minute degree of change in demand, Perry? (Kettles at the end of programs? Really?) The information I received does not indicate this.”

When I lived in Ireland, I knew a guy whose regular job, when rostered on a Saturday night, was to watch a popular live chat and current affairs television show, whose ending time – because it was live, and ran until the presenter felt it was time to stop - was not predictable. He did this precisely because the nation’s electric kettles were all going to be switched on between 30 seconds and 2 minutes after the credits rolled, and the grid needed to gear up for that.

Generators can dump electricity, but it is a bit tricky. Energy cannot be destroyed, so the power must be used to produce something - heat, light, movement, but something. And the more power you dump, the more something you have to produce. And it’s expensive; it costs money to generate the power, but dumping it raises no revenue – in fact it costs more money. So the key to generating electricity at a profit is producing neither more nor less than you need, which in turn means being flexible about output.

This is easier said than done. Two points:

First, how easy and effective it is to step down power output depends on your generating method. Hydro power? Easy-peasy. Just turn off the tap. Coal-fired? Not so easy; once the boiler is fired up, the coal will continue to burn whether or not you take the generators offline. Sure, you can burn it more slowly and you can reduce the refueling rate but, basically, you will still burn a fair amount of coal. And in Australia we generate a good deal of our power out of coal.

The smaller the grid, the bigger the problem this becomes. A grid with only two or three stations, all coal-fired, is not very responsive to short-term fluctuations in demand, whereas a grid with a mix of generating systems can be much more responsive, since they can step down the most flexible system. If 10% of power is generated from hydro, and demand falls by 10%, hey presto! Turn off the tap, and leave the other stations operating without any change. The difference between what you are hearing and what I heard may have to do with the different power generation methods used in Victoria and in Ireland.

Secondly, and this applies regardless of the generation method, the capital cost of generating plant is (a) considerable, and (b) incurred whether the plant is running or not. If you have enough plant to generate all the power you want at peak times, you have surplus capacity all the rest of the time. A nice steady consumption rate is what generators want, and something like earth hour is probably a considerable annoyance to them – not because they can’t step down the plant, but because it leaves them with unused, and expensive, capacity. Sustained efforts which change people’s consumption levels are fine, and the are positively welcome if they result in a smoothing of consumption over the day, but a one-hour blip is a pain in the butt. Yes, there is a saving in fuel (and therefore in carbon emissions), but from the generator’s point of view there is a loss of revenue, with no reduction in capital costs. Naturally, they’re not enthusiastic.


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