Monday, September 22, 2014

Reducing electricity consumption to affect political change

Many people are concerned about the negative effects that humans are having on the Earth's ecosystems, and with good reason: those systems support us, and without them we would not survive. It is estimated that for every dollar of GDP produced, the natural world contributes .75c -- these are services that nature provides for free and, without which, our quality of life would drop by 75%.
A big cause of human destruction of natural systems is in the provision and delivery of energy. The main culprits are fossil fuels which are starting to alter the world's climate -- a change that, if unchecked, will wreak great destruction on both the natural and human systems that support us. There are now technologies (solar PV and wind turbines) that can produce energy with much  less damage to the environment, and it is imperative that we transition to these as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there are entrenched interests that are heavily committed to fossil fuels and use their influence to slow the adoption of newer, less harmful, methods of energy production.
What is clear is that majority political support for serious action on climate change is currently lacking.
There are huge forces at work here. In the absence of a government with the ability and disposition for serious action, what can an individual do to help this process?

Number one: Use Less

When it comes to reducing one's impact on the systems that support us, there is simply no substitute for using less. Even "green" energy sources have impacts (albeit much more minor). Using less frees money and resources that can be better deployed by helping other, less fortunate, people adapt.

Number two: Avoid electricity or fuel where possible

Electricity is hard to produce, and there are always wastes and damage to the environment -- even when using solar PV or wind turbines. This is because the manufacture, installation and maintenance of these generally result in carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.
Therefore, if a task can be performed without using electricity at all, it is preferable to do so. A great example of this is hot water, which can be heated directly from the sun without need for electricity at all. By doing this, your electricity consumption will be much lower.
Similarly, a solar cooker can cook food without fuel or electricity, using only heat directly from the sun. These are simple and cheap to build.

Number three: buy carbon-emission-free ("green") power, and/or install solar panels

Here is where your large reductions in consumption will help -- because you're now using a lot less power, you will not need many solar panels to offset your electricity consumption (cheaper!).
At my house, we have reduced our power consumption to about 3 kWh/day for a family of four without significant lifestyle sacrifices. I think it can go lower still. We have a 2 kW solar PV system, which produces an average of about 6 - 8 kWh/day (averaged over the year) -- more power than we consume. We do draw power from the grid though, as we do use power at night (when the PV panels aren't producing), which is why we also buy carbon-emission-free power. By doing this, we ensure that we're not directly supporting the use of coal for electricity generation and because our power consumption is so low, the additional cost is very small. This also supports the businesses that are producing renewable carbon-free energy in Australia.

Dirty companies only have as much money as we give them

Using less means less revenue for the large energy generation, distribution and retail companies that, generally, are slowing the adoption of renewable energy technologies, and affecting public policy in negative ways. Make no mistake -- the combined actions of individuals is very powerful. The uptake of domestic solar PV has already had a huge effect on the energy generators and retailers in Australia.
This is because solar PV is usually producing power at precisely the times that energy is most expensive (energy retailers pay a fluctuating ("spot-") price for electricity,  and the times when the spot price is highest are the most profitable for the generators. Domestic solar PV is taking the edge from this demand, which is having a significant affect on the profitability of some of the big dirty producers. These kinds of commercial disincentives work to the advantage of renewable energy technologies.

If Australians continue to reduce their consumption and simultaneously install distributed generation (like solar panels, solar hot water, etc) and buy carbon-emission-free power, this will help to encourage the necessary changes. This will have a concrete effect on Australia's carbon emissions and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change.

Remember, a carbon tax only has benefits because it causes people to use less -- we as concerned citizens can use less all by ourselves.

This post was written by Angus Wallace and first appeared at

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