Earth Hour: Symbolism Isn't Enough

Last Saturday, Mar. 28, several million people worldwide flipped off their light switches for an hour to symbolically send a message of their determination to fight global warming. According to a press statement by WWF-Philippines, more than 15 million Filipinos in 647 towns and cities participated by flicking off their switches. Philippine landmarks such as the Jose Rizal shrine and the Mall of Asia were among those that turned off their lights, according to the Earth Hour Web site.

Symbolically, Earth Hour was a powerful message that united millions of people against climate change. But in reality, although its significance cannot be discounted particularly in pushing forward a post-Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty in Copenhagen, that was mostly what it was—a symbolic gesture.

As any electrical engineer will tell you, electricity-generating plants have to generate electricity (and the associated CO2 emissions) based on the maximum demand they expect for a particular time period. It is like catering for a party: Even if most of your guests are dieters, you still need to prepare the food based on the number of guests you expect.

Into the Spinning Reserve So in the power-generation sector, they have to keep enough power plants running to anticipate the maximum demand they expect, and not the minimum demand. The difference between the electricity they generate, and the amount that actually gets used, is called a spinning reserve. What laypersons need to understand is that even if millions of people turned off their lights, the coal plants did not have enough time to shut off and restart. So in effect, the unused electricity was still generated as a spinning reserve, and it still emitted greenhouse gases. Granted, there was some reduction in the amount of fuel needed to run power plants for that hour because of the reduced load; however, they still had to run at their rated settings.

A check with the Philippines Dept. of Energy and a CEO of a local power company did not reveal any coal plants that actually shut down for Earth Hour. According to several coal industry insiders I spoke with, it is very expensive and requires a minimum of 24 to 36 hours to shut off and restart a major coal plant. Normally, a coal plant is shut down just like any major piece of equipment for repairs and maintenance, and if there is no significant electricity demand for a significant amount of time.

Alvin Aquino, a former senior construction engineer who helped build the 770MW Tokyo Electric Power (9501.T) coal plant in the Philippine province of Quezon, says that a coal plant cannot be stopped for just an hour and then restarted again. Aquino said the turbines require around nine hours to slow to a stop, and 12 hours to gain enough momentum to start up to their minimum velocity to receive steam. During this time the boilers are also started to provide adequate feed pressure. "Imagine a stack of fan blades 11 meters in diameter weighing about four tons. They will freewheel for hours after you turn the steam off before they stop," says Aquino. "You can't put brakes on such a system. They get brittle under thermal stress."

Voluntary and Tech-Driven Change Acquiring a permanent habit of turning off empty coffeemakers, or avoiding the simultaneous turn on of chillers and large load equipment, and switching to clean renewable energy sources is the right way to avoid building more power plants. After all, the best climate-change mitigation scheme is one that will negate the need for more power plants, or at least calls for a shift to clean renewable sources. So instead of being just a symbolic attempt to mitigate climate change, it would really help as a next step if all those who joined Earth Hour will pursue a serious energy conservation and clean renewable energy program.

The energy conservation program should be based on voluntary and technology-driven energy conservation. By voluntary, I mean turning off empty coffeemakers, avoiding turning on large loads simultaneously, and setting thermostats at just the right temperature. Maybe each household can make a commitment to cut its energy consumption monthly by a certain amount of kilowatt-hours, using energy-efficient modern appliances that know to turn off when not in use or can be controlled remotely by the electric utility. Eventually, most appliances will contain a microchip that will allow them to tailor their energy consumption intelligently, and in some cases allow the utility to control your home appliance.

On the clean energy front, there are many sources that are now approaching grid parity, or the cost of typical fossil fuel-generated electricity. For the more expensive sources like solar photovoltaics, the cost can be paid for by innovative financing schemes such as Feed-in-Tariffs, especially since these sources typically involve only one-time costs. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade schemes can also make renewable energy more competitive. Sunlight and wind are free, once the capital costs of the equipment are shouldered at the start. Eventually, a certain market for these renewable energy technologies like wind and solar will drive technology entrepreneurs and investors to drive the costs down just like what happened in the semiconductor and personal computer businesses.

Getting Past Mere Awareness Don't get me wrong. Earth Hour is a good start for creating awareness about excessive power consumption and its impact on climate change. In so far as creating a statement in support of a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement at Copenhagen, it may do the job. But since we are involving more than 80 million people around the world, we might as well move beyond just awareness and truly (and not just symbolically) mitigate climate change. If we really want a serious step beyond Earth Hour, let us implement measures that actually signal to electric utilities how they can really cut back on greenhouse gases, and not one that is purely symbolic.

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