Earth Hour Ontario post mortem: what the numbers tell us

I mentioned on March 30, and it bears repeating: Ontario electricity output increased during Earth Hour. Some media stories claimed that there were decreases in power consumption in cities like Toronto and Ottawa during the big event, and they may be right (though the cynic in me suspects they are not). But make no mistake: Ontario generators collectively produced more electricity in that time.

More to the point, since we are talking about Earth Hour, and Earth Hour was supposed to encourage environment-friendly behavior, generators in the province put nearly 4,500 tonnes of emissions into the air during Earth Hour, up from just over 4,200 the previous hour.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Earth Hour participation in Ontario was weak. It does seem to have been a popular event; it was widely covered in the media, and I personally know many people who participated. For all I know, this part of it may have been a success. But if provincial generation and generation emissions increased in spite of this high uptake, what does that say?

It might say that the way in which people were urged to cut consumption—turning off lights for an hour—was perhaps not the one most likely to produce decisive results. I pointed out on March 30 that much better results would have occurred had people voluntarily curtailed consumption for one hour beginning at 5 p.m. the day before, which was a Friday. Power-sector emissions in the hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. that day were over 5,400 tonnes.

But how realistic is it to expect people to cut consumption at 5 on a Friday afternoon? Not very. And that’s the whole problem with the emphasis on cutting consumption as the way to help the environment. It disrupts our normal economic and leisure activity. Some would argue that this is good. After all, power output in Ontario was just over 478 million kWh on February 18, 2008, the inaugural Family Day. That was eight percent more than the previous day, which was a Sunday, and 12 percent less than the following day, a normal working Tuesday.

Was the loss in economic productivity worth the 52,000 tonnes of emissions that were “avoided” during Family Day? Perhaps. But the last day in February, a working Friday, saw power output of 442 million kWh, eight percent less than Family Day. Surprisingly, power sector emissions were 26 percent higher on February 29 than February 18. If the 29th’s lower power output were the result of a public campaign to curtail consumption, there would have been no payoff in emissions reductions, which was the whole point of Earth Hour.

A much more effective and less disruptive way to cut power sector emissions in Ontario would be to simply add more non-emitting generation to the provincial system. The Ontario government is actually taking steps to make this happen, with the request for proposals to add 3,500 megawatts of new nuclear capacity. This is a good move, and we could use more.

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Jim Baerg
15 years ago

I think it would be worth while to find ways to shift some power use to off peak times. Eg: heaters (water or space) that turn off at peak times. Anything that cuts the power peaks will cut the use of the dirtiest generators.