Earth Hour 2010: another failure, but at least energy literacy is improving

Earth Hour has been a Going Thing for three years now. Every year I hope the promoters of this feel-good event will abandon their usual simple-minded and vaguely misanthropic message that energy is bad, and do something to promote actual energy literacy in the general public. While this year’s version produced no new promotional rhetoric—and, in Ontario, no drop in electricity generation (see—I am encouraged by the growing impatience on the part of mainstream media commentators, like Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star, with the premises on which Earth Hour is based. Many point out the obvious fact that not all electricity systems are the same. Australia, where Earth Hour originated, makes most of its electricity by burning coal. France makes most of its power using nuclear fission, which is emission free.

These are important differences. Burning paraffin candles might produce a slight decrease in carbon emissions if your only other illumination choice is electricity in Australia. But if you did the same thing in France, your carbon emissions would increase. Similarly in Canada. Alberta’s electricity system is almost all coal-fired, with an emission intensity of nearly a kilogram of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour generated. Quebec’s is based almost entirely on hydro and nuclear; its system emission intensity is around eight grams per kWh—probably the cleanest system in the world.

Click here to see Environment Canada’s electricity intensity tables for all Canadian provinces and territories.

Because of the big difference between electricity systems across Canadian provinces, across-the-board calls for energy conservation in the name of protecting the planet often miss the point. An all-out effort to reduce electricity use in provinces like Quebec, Newfoundland-Labrador, Manitoba, and British Columbia will produce minuscule emission reductions; these provinces’ electricity systems are very low-carbon.

In fact, it would be much better to advise residents of these provinces to use more electricity. For example, electric space heating in these provinces is much cleaner than even the most efficient natural gas (see article). Instead of telling people in Quebec, Newfoundland-Labrador, Manitoba, and BC to turn their lights off during Earth Hour, we should have told them to put all their incandescent lights on, and turn down the thermostats of their natural gas or oil furnaces.

Earth Hour’s most enthusiastic promoters tend to ignore these niceties and view any electricity use as inherently bad. The World Wildlife Fund is typical in this regard. Such groups fancy themselves the true defenders of the planet. In my opinion they are misanthropic Luddites whose advice we should all ignore.

My main problem with groups like the WWF is not only that they are doctrinally anti-nuclear and pro–natural gas, an absurd position when you consider they are also anti–oil sands, and oil sands air pollution is almost all caused by burning natural gas.

No, my main problem is that they are anti-electricity. They’d rather we all kill the lights and use candles, most of which are made from paraffin, a fossil fuel. Have any of them ever considered making their children do their homework by candlelight? Do they think poor African or Indian children should study by candlelight instead of electric light?

I am not against environmentalism; I’m an ardent environmentalist myself. I just think the natural environment deserves better representation. A fellow pro-nuclear blogger, Charles Barton of Nuclear Green, puts it best:

The purpose of Nuclear Green is not to attack environmentalism. Rather it is to recapture it from the horde of misanthropes, grafters, and ignoramuses, who currently lead most environmental organizations, and their brain dead followers, who recite 40 year old bumper sticker slogans, as if they were the last word on reality.

Now that the mainstream media has caught on to some of the facile underpinnings of Earth Hour, maybe we can get back to truly educating the public about energy choices. We—humans—have important decisions to make, and we should be as well informed as possible.

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10 years ago

I thought this speech by Jan Carr was quite insightful. With 35 years in the power generation business, his recommendations should be seriously considered by the people controlling public energy policy.

I couldn’t agree more about the WWF. These days, it advocates more for UN-based policies of control of energy and economies than for the environment. Unfortunately, it seems to have a great deal of influence in public policy in Ontario. This situation must change and closer attention must be paid to the groups who fund these NGOs.

10 years ago


Yes, the Jan Carr article is excellent and should be required reading. Electricity is so ubiquitous that I think we take it for granted. If the August 14th blackout had been the January 14th blackout, the consequences of even a few hours without electricity would have been far more serious. I worry that most people don’t appreciate that.

10 years ago

Steve Aplin wrote:
Burning paraffin candles might produce a slight decrease in carbon emissions if your only other illumination choice is electricity in Australia. But if you did the same thing in France, your carbon emissions would increase.

No, in both cases, carbon emissions would increase by burning candles. Candles are so inefficient that even burning coal to power incandescent lights produces less than a tenth the amount of CO2 for the same amount of light. This is where the luddites like Earth Hour and World Wildlife Fund go wrong.

10 years ago

Donb, you are probably right. Glad you pointed it out. I have numbers for kerosene but not paraffin. I found some sources of credible data last year, but unfortunately forgot where they are and decided to play it safe. You underline my main point, which is how off-base most mainstream greens are when it comes to energy. Unfortunately, they are the go-to sources when some media vehicles need “the other side of the story.”

10 years ago

Steve, my handy old Westinghouse Lighting Handbook©1969 says that candles are about 0.1 lumen per watt. The figure it gives for a 60 watt incandescent light bulb is 14.7 lumens per watt. While it takes 3+ watts of heat from coal to get 1 watt of electricity, this still puts the overall efficiency somewhere in the range of 3 to 5 lumens per watt, 30 to 50 times more efficient than candles on a pure heat basis. There is more hydrogen in paraffin than in coal (yes, there is hydrogen in coal), which reduces the amount of CO2 per watt of heat, but not enough to reduce the CO2 output by more than a factor of 2.

10 years ago

If you want a good laugh about Earth Hour read this:

I live in Toronto and was at Dundas Square for Earth Hour (girlfriend wanted to go…I swear)
And it was a farce. Sure Bullfrog was supplying the power but musicians played for the whole hour on a lit stage, the giant monitors and electric billboards weren’t on manual shut down; they were still on, just didn’t show a picture. And one of the building right beside the square didn’t turn off any of its exterior lights and shined so brightly that it was a constant source of laughter while the square tried to sit in darkness.

And one of the funny things I saw was the “wish tree”. Supporters who were there were encouraged to make a wish by writing it down on a piece of paper and place it on a bunch of trees they had at the square. What a waste. Thousands of paper hung on the very trees that will eventually be cut down to support some other asinine cause. I had a a girl come over t me and ask to sign on and I asked her “isn’t that giant waste of paper?” – she paused and looked over at the trees and shyly responded…”yes”.

10 years ago

Well, any excuse for a party is a good excuse. If I had been in Toronto, I’d have gone to Dundas Square too. And Iike you, I would have spent my time pointing out all the inconsistencies.

For example, Bullfrog Power. They claim to not purchase gas-fired electricity for resale. Effectively, they DO purchase gas-fired electricity. Wind and solar, because they are intermittent with low capacity factors, require gas backup on the grid. When wind and solar are not available, I bet Bullfrog doesn’t stand back and let the local utility provide the “bad” electricity (nuclear, coal, and gas).

Bullfrog should add nuclear to its list of clean sources. Then it could credibly claim to offer clean power.

10 years ago

Yeah exactly. Because of the stochastic nature of both wind and solar it’s almost as if you should add + Gas/nuclear/coal to them.

10 years ago

To be sure, Earth Hour is not about the actual saving of energy during this 1 hour out of a year (8766 hours).

In my opinion, it’s about raising general awareness of energy use, allowing an ordinary person to feel what it’s like to perform a simple act towards saving energy.

If a person gave some thought on energy saving during that hour, and felt good about switching off the light, then he can educate himself on saving energy during the rest of the year.

10 years ago

Thanks Derek for your comment. Earth Hour’s premise is that using energy and wasting energy are the same thing. I really don’t know anybody who actually wastes energy on a large scale. Sure we all leave the room with the lights on, and sure we all let the car idle at the red light. But those moments are few and short compared to the time we spend using energy “legitimately”—like studying at night, cooking our dinner, taking the subway or streetcar, and lighting our homes during the long dark winter.

Most of the time we need energy, and especially electricity. Jan Carr, in the article referenced in Lynne’s comment above, points out that without electricity, cities would be literally uninhabitable.

My problem with Earth Hour is that it assumes that ALL energy use is bad.

That assumption can lead to bad policy. Take, for example, the debate over how much money we should pay for energy. Earth Hour supporters think we should make it more expensive. For them, we waste it anyway and higher prices will hopefully make us waste less of it.

Well, I don’t agree. Pricing energy in order to punish people for the small amount they may waste is bad policy. It will simply make the necessary energy use more expensive, without any benefit.

10 years ago


I accidentally deleted your last comment (sorry!!). If you want to repost it, go ahead, and I promise it will stay published!