Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Earth Hour and environmental awareness creation?

As part of the annual World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sponsored global Earth Hour, lights and electrical appliances were turned off in many parts of the world between 8.30 and 9.30 PM on March 27th by households and businesses in an effort to raise awareness towards the need to take action on climate change. The WWF claims that the one hour saved India 1000 MW last year.

However, for all its high-profile, apart from the feel-good factor engendered by flaunting the pro-environment credentials of those switching off their lights, I am not convinced that it has achieved anything substantial. I have three observations on this

1. Ironically, by switching off their lights, the environment conscious denizens of our cities may actually have not contributed anything to reducing carbon emissions. In fact, the Earth Hour may be one of the biggest environmental mis-information campaigns, non-events, atleast in India! Here is why.

No power plant anywhere in India switched off their generators in response to the reduced demand. So where did power saved by way of voluntarily reducing consumption go? Very few people may be aware that the severe peak power deficits (and 8.30 to 9.30 PM is indeed peak time) in India, amounting to over 15%, is controlled by load shedding (or load reliefs) to certain categories of consumers. Typically, industries and residential consumers in rural areas and small towns face the brunt of these power cuts. During the Earth Hour, the reduced off-take by the town feeders meant that the loads were, for a change, merely diverted to the rural and industrial feeders.

In fact, more than lowering carbon emissions, the Earth Hour may have only give many villages an unexpected load shedding free night! In other words, it could well have been advertised as an attempt to bridge the rural-urban divide in electricity supply!

2. If the organizers of such events are really serious about their intentions, they should be looking at more meaningful initiatives like organizing a "no-car" day when all private car owners will be encouraged to keep their private vehicles at home and use public transport or car pools. Or they should organize a campaign to discourage (or even boycott!) conventional light bulbs and incentivize energy efficient light bulbs like CFLs.

Such interventions will contribute significantly towards curbing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing the problem of climate change.

3. In electricity itself, a more meaningful way to create awareness, signal environmental credentials and reduce the carbon footprint (and even achieve equity in electricity distribution!) would be to discourage the use of air conditioners and other electrical appliances, watering of lawns and washing of vehicles during peak demand times so as to permanently keep down cosnumption during such times.

Coincidentally, a pilot study in California that incentivized (with flat monthly cash credits and usage measured with smart water meters) water users to shift their watering of lawns to off-peak times found encouraging positive response. It found that at peak times, participating homeowners used less than half the amount of water as those in the control group and the homeowners’ total use also ended up being 17% lower than the control group’s. Given the energy needed to pump it, water accounts for an astonishing 19% of the electricity use in California, water utilities save considerable money by minimizing their peak time electricity utilization.

Update 1 (1/4/2010)
See also this from Mint.

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