03.28.08

They really do want us back in caves

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:53 by RjZ

Have you heard about Earth Hour? Started by the World Wildlife Fund (a charity I actually donate to; and by ‘actually’ here I want to emphasize that I don’t donate to many charities), the idea is that this Saturday, 29th of March, people, businesses, organizations, and governments will turn off the lights from 8:00 to 9:00 in the evening.

I get the leadership and solidarity this is intended to show. Everyone who turns out the lights and joins the WWF will be telling governments and policy makers at businesses and civic organizations that we care about the effects of our energy consumption and we acknowledge we can do something about it.

It’s too bad most people won’t get that.

Many, and for all I know the designers of this action, might be fooled into believing that this has some other purpose. Say, showing how much power can be saved if we all just turned off the lights, for example. A horrible plan. Power plant operators are already concerned that extremist environmentalists want us to crawl back in caves and live by candle light. Even if Earth Hour action could show savings (it won’t!), they’re doing more to justify the fears of people who actually keep our lights on then they are to become agents for change.

Utility owners and policy makers are exactly the ones WWF are trying to convince, but unless extremist environmentalists, who apparently really do think we should return to a pre-industrial agrarian state, are willing to live that way; that is, go off the grid, give up their cars, computers, airplane rides, and all other advancements, like, say, healthcare, they come off as a bit disingenuous.

In fact, it’s terribly easy for the rest of us to turn the light switch off for an hour. During that time of honorable sacrifice we know we can just turn it right back on; we’re not giving up on anything. Meanwhlie, India, China, and the rest of the developing world are getting fed up with the attitude in the West. They want a chance to grow, with the same access to cheap energy, and by cheap, we often mean polluting, that we got to use and all we can do is tell people to turn of their lights.

Sadly, the hour of savings will hardly amount to more than a few megawatts and that people might think otherwise shows a lack of understanding of one of the world’s most incredible industrial inventions—the grid. Let’s have a look. What will happen when everyone turns off the lights at the same time? Unfortunately all the solar plants will already be idle as it’ll be night time. Wind is most steady at dawn and dusk (but this is dependent on many factors) and will not likely have a significant effect (as if we got any significant power from wind and solar today anyway….) Base-load power like nuclear and coal will keep burning away during this lack of demand. That, folks, is how the grid works. You can’t just turn off the overwhelming majority of power in a few minutes. Extra power just flows into the grid and if it’s not used then it will end up heating up transformers and being wasted anyway. There are no giant batteries to store up the extra power. The majority of power doesn’t cycle with demand; fortunately the grid is large enough to simply soak up the extra energy of most short-term changes in demand.

If enough people actually turn off their lights to have a significant demand effect, the power providers will have to respond in some way. Their first choice will be to turn off peaking power sources like oil and gas. Except, most of these will already be off because this isn’t peak demand time anyway, but there could be some actual savings there. Much of the hoped for energy savings will be lost due to inefficiencies of ramping them off and then back up again when demand returns, but these peak power sources are at least intended to respond to changes in demand so it’s not too big a deal.

If WWF gets a huge turn-out and demand really drops, then maybe a coal plant will actually go off-line. That would be really bad news. For that hour of CO2 saved during the coal plant outage, it will take it hours to even days to turn back on. During which all those peaking power sources will be running to take up the slack, drinking foreign oil the whole time.

In the 70s, the peak power season used to be December. Today the peak is during summer. What’s the difference? Air-conditioning units. Before AC on every home, power providers could actually measure the spike in power demand from all the Christmas lights. Now, in spite of the extra lights (have you seen the Joneses keeping up with the Smiths on who can put up the most lights? I sure have) Christmas barely registers above the noise for demand. Come summer, though, and all those AC units raise demand to pay for new power plants. The point is, turning off the lights for an hour won’t even rise above the noise.

At least we’ll have the solidarity. And maybe a romantic candle light dinner or two.

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