Friday, March 30, 2012

22 March 2011 – EARTH HOUR

Or, "Is it better to light a candle"?


The purpose of Earth Hour is to “turn off lights for one hour as a symbolic action to raise awareness about climate change.”  The goal of sitting in the dark for an hour is to provide “an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what we can do - at home and in the office - to lessen our impact on the environment.”
I thought I’d simply offer a few facts and figures for your consideration as “Earth Hour” approaches.  First, according to the IMF, there is a direct and very stark correlation between electrification and standard of living.  The poorest countries in the world are also those with the lowest levels of electrification (expressed in Watts of electrical consumption per person).

(Source: IMF and CIA Factbook)

The upper right end of the line contains Australia, the US, Canada and Norway; the lower left end contains Chad, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.  Nobody in any of those latter countries will be turning off any light-bulbs on Saturday night, because the per capita electrical consumption in each of those countries is 15 Watts per person or less - not enough to run a single light-bulb.  In other words, if you want to raise the standard of living of people in the worst-off countries in the world, don’t send them cheques, used clothing or Hollywood celebrities; provide them with cheap, abundant electrical power.
The importance of electrification is not reflected only in GDP.  International activists and aid agencies are continually bombarding potential donors with heart-rending images of children in the most dire conditions of abject poverty.  Well, guess what - there’s also a very direct and very stark correlation between electrification and child mortality.  Using the same countries as in the first chart, here’s the effect of electrification on mortality rates for children under the age of 5 (expressed in annual deaths per thousand live births):

(Source: WHO and CIA Factbook)

The bottom right of the chart, with low child mortality and high electrification, once again contains Australia, the US, Canada and Norway.  The top left of the chart, with low electrification and high child mortality, contains Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Chad and Afghanistan.  In other words, if you want to solve the child mortality problem, don’t send monetary donations to individuals or agencies; provide the population with cheap, abundant electrical power.
Electricity is the lifeblood of modern society.  I don’t just mean its trinkets and trappings, like X-Boxes and LCD televisions; I mean its very foundations.  Stop and imagine for a moment what would happen if the power really went out.  Not just a few light-bulbs, but everything. 
Actually, you don’t have to imagine it - you just have to have been living in Ontario or the north-eastern US on the 14th of August 2003.

Remember that?  That was the great Northeast blackout - the second most widespread blackout in history, affecting 10,000,000 people in Ontario and 45,000,000 in the US.  That part of the grid normally supplied about 28 GW of power.  During the outage, supply dropped to about 5 GW.  It’s fascinating how much the affected area looks like the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson’s Bay - places where there are simply no people.  This is what doing without electricity looks like.  You want symbolism?  THIS is symbolism.  Do you suppose the people affected by that blackout were reflecting on how good the loss of the grid was for “the environment”?  Or were they wondering how to keep their food from spoiling, how to get water out of their 180’ well without a pump, how to cook, how to clean their clothes, or - luxury of luxuries! - how to cool their homes in the 35+ temperatures we were enjoying that day?  Were they worrying about driving safely without traffic lights?  Or about how long auxiliary generators at hospitals would hold out?  Or whether banks could keep their computer servers running? Or how to fuel their cars with no power to the gas pumps?  Were police, fire and ambulance radio services still working?  Were the intensive care, cardiac and oncology units at hospitals still functioning?  How about air traffic control?
And that was in the summer, when ambient outdoor temperatures are survivable.  But this is Canada.  Suppose a major blackout had happened in winter? 
Wait a did:

The central North American ice storm of January 1998 destroyed over 1000 high tension pylons (and 35,000 wooden power poles) in Quebec alone, and resulted in a loss of electrical power to more than 4,000,000 consumers, in some cases for many weeks.  The damage to the grid was so severe and so widespread that the Army deployed armoured personnel carriers to rip downed power lines out of the ice in an attempt to salvage them.  Damage exceeded $4-6 billion and resulted in the largest domestic deployment of military personnel in Canadian history.  Thousands of farm animals were crushed under falling roofs, or froze to death because there was no power to heat their buildings.  During those power outages, how many folks do you think were reflecting on their impact on the opposed to, say, the environment’s impact on them

We take the grid for granted; we treat it like a constant, something that’ll always be there.  But it’s not a constant; it’s an enormous and immensely complex, interconnected, continent-wide machine consisting of hundreds of power plants, thousands of transformer stations, hundreds of thousands of step-down transformers, millions of pylons and miles of wire, hundreds of millions of individual consumers, and tens of billions of electrical appliances.  Managing the generation, distribution and consumption of the amount of energy handled by the grid is a feat of engineering that makes most other human achievements look like finger-painting.  Every day the North American grid distributes the electrical equivalent of the energy contained in a 10 Mt hydrogen bomb - and yet we don’t even think about it.(Note D)  It took the most technically advanced civilization in history more than a hundred years to accomplish something as magnificently complicated, capable and invisible as the grid, and it takes all of our ingenuity to keep it operating in the face of ever-increasing demand, insufficient maintenance, and government regulations that place illogical constraints on generators.  And as we are painfully reminded every time there’s a major power outage, the grid is all that stands between us and the unpleasant reality of the natural world.  If you live in Canada, that’s a pretty serious consideration.

Now, let’s take a moment to think about what “Earth Hour” really symbolizes.  If you accept the figures in the CIA World Factbook and those provided by the US Energy Information Administration, then the per capita electricity consumption in Canada is 1910 W/person.  For a family of 4, then, the total load is 7640 W.  The average Canadian house, according to NRCan, has 40.9 light bulbs,(Note A) of which 52% are high-efficiency (usually CFLs rather than the far more efficient, longer-lasting and much safer LED bulbs).  At an average of 60W per incandescent light bulb, and 15W per CFL (to match the 800 lumens generated by a 60W incandescent bulb), the approximate lighting load for the average household if all lights were turned on simultaneously (an unusual occurrence) would be (21x15)+(20x60)=1515W.  In my house, I counted; between 1930 and 2030 hrs on a Saturday, I would normally have 2 lights on in the kitchen, 3 in the office, 1 in the living room, 2 in the kids’ bedrooms, and 3 outside.  Half of these are halogen or LED, but let’s pretend they’re all 60W incandescent bulbs - that’s a total load of 11x60 or 660W.  If I turn these all off for one hour, I will have spared the grid 0.66 kWh. 

What kind of emissions am I saving?  Well, according to Ontario Power Generation (Note B), Ontario’s generating capacity is roughly one-third each nuclear (6606 MW), hydroelectric (6996 MW) and thermal (6327 MW).  As I write this, however, the power actually being produced by each of those elements of our overall generating capacity is 5709 MW from nuclear, 2255 MW from hydroelectric, and 319 MW from thermal plants.  In other words, of the 8283 MW currently being generated in Ontario, only 3.85% comes from carbon-emitting sources (accordingly, even if you accept the premise of the AGW thesis, 96.15% of Ontario’s generated electricity cannot in any way be even remotely connected to “climate change”).  So of the 0.66 kWh I’ll save by shutting off my lights for “Earth Hour”, I’m saving 0.66 x 0.0385 = 0.0254 kWh worth of emissions.  According to Environment Canada, using coal to produce electricity creates 0.5418 kg of carbon dioxide per kWh generated, so turning off my light bulbs for an hour will save 0.5418 x 0.0254 = 0.0137 kg, or 14 grams, of carbon dioxide. 

Paraffin, a complex hydrocarbon that is solid at room temperature, produces, like other alkane fuels, roughly 3 kg of carbon dioxide per litre when burned (about a 3:1 ratio by mass).  This means that if I want to replace my lost electrical light with paraffin candles, then - if I want to remain “Earth-friendly” - I can’t generate more than 14 grams of carbon dioxide.  This means that I can only burn about 5 grams of paraffin.  Ikea sells packs of 24 tea lights weighing 2 pounds (909 grams), so each tea light weighs about 37.85 grams (call it 35 grams once we lose the packaging and the aluminum holder for the paraffin).  If I can only burn 5 grams of paraffin, that’s 1/7 or 14.3% of a tea light.  Tea lights are advertised to burn for 4 hours, so to get one hour’s worth of light out of one, I’d have to burn 25% of it.  So I can light a single tea light during Earth Hour to replace the 11 light-bulbs I’ve turned off - but I’ll have to blow it out after 14.3/25x60=34 minutes, or else I’ll have produced more carbon dioxide from my tiny candle than Ontario Power Generation would have produced to run my 11 light-bulbs for an hour. 

For the first 34 minutes of “Earth Hour”, therefore, I’ll be trying to run my life by the light of a single, tiny candle; and for the last 26 minutes, I’ll be sitting idle in the dark.  It doesn’t get any more symbolic than that.

If “Earth Hour” symbolizes anything at all, frankly, it’s the inability of people to do basic arithmetic.  It also symbolizes the widespread and appalling ignorance of the historical fact that abundant electricity produced by the cheapest means available (and anyone who understands the market should understand that “abundant” and “cheapest means available” are inextricably interconnected) is a major part of the difference between the life that we enjoy here, and the grinding poverty and catastrophic child mortality of the third world.

Nowhere is this easier to see than in a night-time satellite image of the Sea of Japan.  You’d think that South Korea, like Japan, was an island, wouldn’t you?

It’s always “Earth Hour” in North Korea.  If you want to reflect on something this Saturday night, reflect on that.

The line dividing the modern from the pre-modern world is drawn in electric light. It took an awful lot of human science, human ingenuity, human resources and human labour to create the means to produce clean, white illumination at the flick of a switch.  Voluntarily turning that switch off is a “symbolic act”, all right - but I don’t think most people who do so understand what they’re really symbolizing.




A) []
B) []
C) The satellite photo of eastern Asia comes from []
D) The combined US-Canada electrical consumption is 11,708,821 MWh/day.  1 kWh=3.6Mj, so the daily Can-US consumption is 42x10^15 joules.  The explosion of a million tonnes of TNT liberates 4.18x10^15 joules.