The impacts of climate change – whether human caused or not – is on display in the headlines. Huge wildfires in the arctic and in the Amazon. All-time record heat in Europe. Melting glaciers. The average American produces about 43,600 pounds of CO2 per year through their day to day lives. That’s twice as much as the average German citizen, and five times as much as the average Chinese citizen.
Saving the planet isn’t just for hippies and Hollywood anymore. Reducing your carbon footprint is more important than ever. Thankfully, reducing your carbon output is also easier than ever. But is it worth it? What difference can you alone make? You’re just one person, or one family.
The answer is: “a lot more than you could possibly imagine.” About a third of America’s carbon output is from electricity generation. If each of us could reduce our electrical energy use by one third, that would be the equivalent of planting 100 trees for each adult and child in your household. Every year.
That’s a big impact. And if it multiplies across your whole neighborhood, state, nation and eventually the world, it will make all the difference.
How even a little energy savings makes a big impact
For every kilowatt you save at home, about a pound’s worth of CO2 is saved from the atmosphere. But that’s only part of the story. Creating, transporting, and using electrical energy actually creates more electrical needs. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
Electrical power generating plants are not 100 percent efficient. Only about 30% of the heat energy released by burning whatever fuel the plant uses is turned into electrical energy. The rest of the 70% of total heat released by burning natural gas, coal, biofuels, etc escapes as heat from the smoke stack.
About 15 percent of that 30 percent (or about 5 percent of the total energy released by burning the fuel) is lost as heat in the electrical grid as it makes it the many miles from the power plant to your home. Power lines are not perfectly conductive and all the parts and conductors the energy must pass through all release part of the energy they carry as heat.
Now the electricity is at your home. The losses don’t stop there. Almost none of the electric appliances in your home are 100 percent efficient. They all give off some amount of heat as they do their work. Ever tried changing a light bulb right after it has been on for a few hours? That heat could have been light instead, if the bulb was more efficient. The same is true for most appliances in your home.
Then, all that heat must be removed from your home or office. Which means turning on your air conditioning. Which starts the energy “generation – transmission – use” cycle all over again.
For every kilowatt you can save at home or at your office, you also prevent all those other energy losses and cool off the inside of your home – and the planet around you.
Saving energy means fewer new power plants
No one wants a new electrical power plant in their neighborhood. The “not in my back yard” effect is a strong political argument that keeps electrical generation out of the urban and suburban areas, and rural or wilderness areas are often protected for their scenic beauty. No one wants to take a picture at one of California’s amazing parks and forests with a steaming power plant in the background.
The same applies to new hydroelectric generation dams. New reservoirs behind new power generating dams are not likely to be approved in California any time soon. There is only one coal-fired plant left in California, and no more are likely to ever be built in the state.
Grid-scale renewable energy generation takes a lot of land, as well. The large solar plants between Los Angeles and Las Vegas are controversial because of impacts on desert wildlife and migratory birds. Wind turbines impact viewsheds across large tracts of land and are troublesome for birds too.
Distributing energy generation may be the answer. Rooftop solar is more welcome in communities that a new natural gas plant. They won’t kill birds or turtles, and distributing generation into the areas where the energy will be used helps with transmission loss. However, adding rooftop solar without cutting energy use just transfers “peak” times for natural gas plants to the evening.
Electricity conservation means savings for the community and you
Your electric bill has two parts: the amount of energy you actually used, and a fixed grid cost. In the short run, saving electricity will save you money on the electric use costs. That makes sense. If you use fewer kilowatt-hours, you don’t pay as much on the “cents per kilowatt hour” part of your bill!
If enough of your neighbors join you in your conservation efforts, did you know the “grid cost” fixed part of your bill will go down in the long term, too?
Energy conservation across the whole state, combined with distributed generation like rooftop solar, will mean that California can get by with the power plants we already have. As the utilities’ debt on existing plants is paid off, and fewer new plants need to be built, then the total cost to run the grid will come down too. That will reduce the fixed cost part of bills for all customers, including you.
Short term and long term benefits, both financially and environmentally
Save money on your electric bill and keep the heat down in your house. Save CO2 from the atmosphere and keep the heat down on the planet. There are short and long run benefits to switching out light bulbs for more efficient technologies, adding rooftop solar, improving insulation and upgrading your appliances.