Our ever-multiplying array of appliances and digital devices — from microwaves and cell phones to DVR systems and HD television sets – is changing the way Americans use electricity.
If you think about it, this should not be overly surprising–as you read this, how many devices do you have plugged in or charging?–but it’s always nice to have figures, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration has done the necessary number crunching.
The big change is that our appliances, electronics and lighting have gone from about a quarter of our total home energy use 20 years ago, to over a third now — an increase of 10 percent. Meanwhile, space heating has dropped from more than half of our energy use to about 41 percent.
“Factors underpinning this trend,” write EIA analysts James Berry and William McNary, ”are increased adoption of more efficient equipment, better insulation, more efficient windows, and population shifts to warmer climates. The shift in how energy is consumed in homes has occurred even as per-household energy consumption has steadily declined.”
The catch here is that even as our homes are using less electricity, the amount of energy needed to support that use – what is called primary energy –has also changed, dramatically, the EIA reported in another set of graphs.
In terms of actual onsite consumption, American homes use about equal amounts of natural gas and electricity, but it takes three units of a primary source — whether fossil fuels or renewable energy — to produce one unit of electricity for home use and, again, due to the growing number of appliances and devices per house, we chew up a lot of primary energy.
Figures from the EIA show why. The number of American homes with three or more TVs rose from 22 percent in 1993 to almost 50 percent in 2009. Homes with two or more computers have jumped almost fivefold, from just under 6 percent in 1997 to 34.7 percent in 2009.
In other words having more energy-efficient TVs won’t have much of an impact on the amount of electricity you use — or the amount of primary power a utility needs to have on tap – if you have three or more sets running at the same time.
Which brings me to Earth Hour 2013 on March 23, when people around the world will turn out their lights and turn off their computers and other appliances for an hour, 8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., in their respective time zones. The symbolic action is intended to spark awareness and action around reducing greenhouse gases and protecting the world’s diverse plants and animals.
Now in its seventh year, the event is having international impact. In Russian, for example, last year Earth Hour challenged 100,000 people to sign a petition calling for an end to oil dumping in the country’s seas; 122,000 signed and the Russian Parliament in December passed a law beefing up protection for the seas.
According to the nifty video on the Earth Hour home page, 152 countries on all seven continents and more than 7,000 cities and towns have been involved in the event.
People get very creative with their efforts for Earth Hour, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. In Canada, composer Andrew Huang has launched a crowd-sourcing effort to write an Earth Hour anthem.
Hotels around the world, from the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin to the New World chain of luxury hotels located in Pacific Rim cites, such as Beijing, Saigon and Manila, have said they will turn off all nonessential exterior lights and serving candle-light dinners in their cafes and restaurants, with special menus featuring locally sourced food.
And as last year, individuals are being asked to set challenges for friends and communities. Thai American actor Utt Panichkul is going to drop one item of clothing for every 1,000 people who pledge to turn up their air conditioning one degree.
In Bali, the eighth grade class at the Green School has pledged to go paperless for the rest of the year if 1,000 people commit to each planting a tree.
So, here we go again, Coachella Valley. Last year, I put out a challenge that if 50 businesses and 5,000 people would commit to turning off their lights, I would commit to a year of three-minute showers.
I think only St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert took me up on the challenge, by turning off its cross on the hill for the whole night, but I decided to tackle the shower issue anyway. I didn’t quite make three minutes, but I can say I have cut my average shower time from 10 minutes or more to four minutes or less. My shower Friday morning–timed on my handy-dandy iPhone–came in at three minutes 41 seconds.
So this year, I’m upping the ante. We’ve got piles of restaurants and hotels in this valley, high season or no, that could join with other fine establishments around the world in turning off their nonessential, exterior lighting for an hour and serving special candle-light dinners on March 23. It could even be a draw, rather than a turn-off for visitors (especially if, say, they donate any savings on their electric bills to local charities).
For each one that does, I will volunteer an hour of my time at the FIND Food Bank.
Ditto, for any other business or organization in the valley that turns off their nonessential lights for Earth Hour. I will need documented proof — photos or videos.
If the Coachella Valley is serious about being a hub for green energy and technology, we need to walk the walk — and for just one hour, turn out our lights.