Hour of Lack of Power
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Hour of Lack of Power

As Toronto joins countries around the world in turning out the lights tonight, we thought it was worthwhile to take a critical look at Earth Hour. And we’re not the only ones. Even in its home country of Australia, a blogger on a newspaper website writes (via Metro) that instead of switching off the lights, “people should switch on their brains and realize that they are being played for suckers. And they should see that this sort of feelgood propaganda just lets governments off the hook.” When we power down our lights at 8 p.m., are we powering up our ability to tackle the climate crisis? Or is it possible that Earth Hour—due to its messaging and unclear purpose—could actually do more harm than good?

Will Earth Hour, in itself, reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions?

Coordinating the generation and consumption of electricity has been likened air traffic control. In Ontario, this complex task is the responsibility of the Independent Energy System Operator (IESO). Every minute of every hour of every day, the IESO monitors Ontario’s power consumption and increases or decreases generation accordingly. Since electricity is consumed the moment it’s put onto the grid, getting the right balance of supply and demand is critical. Too little supply of electricity, and we experience brownouts. Too much, and the power wastefully flows into other jurisdictions (it has to go somewhere), or, in a more extreme scenario, overloads transmission lines and substations.
ieso-graph-march29.gifIn order to make sure that doesn’t happen, the IESO doesn’t just make decisions minute-to-minute, they plan days and weeks in advance. The two main inputs that go into determining how much generation will be required are historical data (how much power was needed at this time of the year, at this time of the week, at this time of day one year ago) and weather forecasts (temperature is the primary driver of electricity demand). Planning for Earth Hour, a spokesperson for the IESO tells Torontoist, was no different. “We’ve tried to plan around this. We know that a number of businesses and residents are going to reduce their use of electricity around that hour.” In doing so, the IESO took a look at historical and weather data for 8 p.m. on March 29, and then applied an Earth Hour discount. Their prediction for how much demand will drop? 800 megawatts, or about 5% of Ontario’s approximate peak demand of 17,000 MW.
A small number to be sure (according to the IESO, demand can drop by 500 MW during the two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day), but simply criticizing Earth Hour for not going far enough is toothless. A more important question is, will the 5% drop in demand actually produce any measurable reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions for that hour? The answer is complicated, but can be summarized as “not necessarily.” Ontario’s power generation mix includes a lot of Nuclear (which today accounts for about 50% of all generation), equal parts coal and hydro (at about 22% each), with oil, gas, wind, and other smaller forms of generation rounding out the total. As the IESO makes its decisions regarding what kinds of generation to ramp up or ramp down, they do so based on what power is the most dispatchable; in other words, what can be turned up and down the fastest. Nuclear takes a long time to shut down or start up, which leaves us primarily with coal and hydro. One might think that for the purposes of Earth Hour a priority would be given to ramping down coal generation, but that’s not how the IESO makes their decisions. The reality is that hyrdo can be ramped down much more quickly if needed. So, the degree to which GHG emissions are reduced in this exercise could come down to how punctual everyone is. If there’s a beautifully synchronized shutting-off of lights and electrical devices at exactly 8 p.m., the IESO would be forced to ramp down hydro generation first. On the other hand, if demand drops off more gradually, they’ll be able to ramp down coal generation. The amount by which GHG emissions are reduced, if at all, won’t be known until afterwards, and will require a somewhat sophisticated crunching of the numbers to determine.

Illusion of action

For some, all of that will seem petty and irrelevant. The point, they argue, is that something is being done, and that awareness of the environmental and energy crises facing our planet will be raised. If this is the purpose and the most we can expect from Earth Hour, then it’s fair to ask a simple question: is more awareness really what we need? Further (keeping in mind our commitment not to criticize Earth Hour for being merely inadequate), could more awareness—or the illusion of real action—actually do more harm than good?
The environment has maintained its presence at the top level of concern in Canadian public opinion polls for over a year now. While two years ago the climate crisis received little coverage and was even treated by the media as questionable, few would now claim that the vast majority of the population was unaware of its existence and its threat. This awareness has driven all political parties to shift their rhetoric to a point where even those that questioned the existence of climate change a few years ago are now claiming to have the best plan to combat it. What’s missing is therefore not desire for action, but action itself.
Earth Hour has the potential to give the illusion of action because many will believe that it is, in itself, a concrete way to directly reduce GHG emissions. After the first Earth Hour in Sydney last year, the presenting media sponsor (which also has an incentive to cast the event in a positive light way) reported that a 10% reduction in emissions had taken place, which they equated to “taking 48,613 cars off the road for one hour.” Later, however, someone else pointed out that that only amounted to taking six cars off the road for a year, while a University of Chicago study concluded that the 10% number was not only incorrect, but that the actual reductions were “statistically indistinguishable from zero.” As explained above, we’re likely to have a similar experience here. Will those who participate in Earth Hour be more likely to mistakenly use it as an excuse to feel less guilty about how much driving they do or how much meat they eat? Will they claim or believe—consciously or otherwise—to have “done their part” and move on?

Doctrine of sacrifice

And what of this issue of guilt? The environmental doctrine of sacrifice has been criticized for not only being unable to capture public imagination, but also for not necessarily being accurate. The very narrative of Earth Hour is one of sacrifice, of going without. Fighting climate change is equated with giving up comforts and convenience. As Amory Lovins puts it, “public discourse about climate change has resulted in the erroneous idea that it’s all about cost, burden and sacrifice. If the math was correct, everyone would see it’s about profit, jobs and competitive advantage. Smart companies have figured this out and are making billions.” If that’s true, then Earth Hour plays into the erroneous end, perpetuating a myth that is holding us back from taking real action.
Or not. Because while some of this evening’s efforts in conservation will be of a sacrificial nature (choosing not to watch an hour of the Leafs/Habs game, for example) others will require none at all (turning off and unplugging all the appliances and devices that aren’t being used anyway), and others still will actually result in more pleasurable activities (some are half-jokingly speculating that Earth Hour may result in a mini baby boom as couples all over the city try and figure out what to do with an hour in the dark). Maybe, just maybe, individuals and businesses—by going through an uncommon exercise in conservation—will realize all of the things they could be doing every day to reduce consumption. Businesses that have for the first time realized that they leave their copiers, computer monitors and lights running all weekend for no reason may see the cost benefit in turning them off from now on. Individuals who go through the exercise of trying to drop their energy consumption to near-zero may realize for the first time that they’re unnecessarily paying to have vampires suck energy out of their walls all day and all night long. In doing so, we move beyond tokenism, and towards a real movement.
We will, therefore, be participating in Earth Hour this evening. None of the potential hazards or drawbacks can’t be overcome, especially if we are aware of them and avoid them. And as the climate crisis worsens—even if Earth Hour is ill-conceived—it’s hard to justify sitting on one’s hands and complaining about imperfect solutions when what’s needed is a diverse mix of all kinds of imperfect solutions amounting to something greater. Besides, last year a similar event lasted only five minutes. Next year, maybe the event will last a full day, and be broader in scope. From there, onwards and upwards.