Turning Off Electronics Is an Old Green Trick With a New Big Impact

light switch on off photo

Photo via Joel A Funk Jr via Flickr CC

Turning off lights when we're not using them is an old, well-known way of saving electricity. So old, in fact, that it's become a bit cliche to mention it as a way of trimming energy consumption. Bigger impacts like flying less or going vegetarian have started to take the spotlight, but the old OFF switch trick for lights and other electronics isn't done yet. A new study shows that in Great Britain, small changes in energy consumption might make a bigger difference than we thought. According to a new study by Imperial College London published in Science Direct, UK government advisers figuring out how much CO2 is saved by trimming electricity use are vastly underestimating the numbers by as much as 60%.

Dr Adam Hawkes, author of the study, says the issue stems from the government not tracking emissions from the various types of power plants. Each type of power plant -- those that use fossil fuels, nuclear, gas, renewables and so on -- has different CO2 rates and generally, it's only the power plants using fossil fuels can respond to changes in electricity demand. By tracking 60 million data points showing the amount of electricity produced every half-hour at every power station in Great Britain from 2002 to 2009, and calculating the emissions from eaach type of generator, Hawkes calculated the emissions rate that should be given to changes in electricity demand.

The current estimated figure for emissions rates used in the UK is 0.43 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed. But this is 60% lower than the actual rates tracked between 2002 and 2009, which as 0.69 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour. So, policy studies are massively underestimating just how much CO2 is cut when people turn off their electronics.

Hawkes states, "One way governments are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change is to encourage people to reduce their energy consumption and change the types of technologies they use in their homes. However, the UK government currently informs its policy decisions based on an estimate that, according to my research, is lower than it should be.

"This means any reduction we make in our electricity use - for example, if everyone switched off lights that they weren't using, or turned off electric heating earlier in the year - could have a bigger impact on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power stations than previously thought. However, this also acts in reverse: a small increase in the amount of electricity we use could mean a larger increase in emissions than we previously thought, so we need to make sure we do everything we can to reduce our electricity use."

It makes perfect sense -- knowing that every little chance we get to save on electricity makes a big difference (and every little bit we waste is a big deal) will encourage people to use less.

Additionally, this study underscores that non-fossil fuel-based energy sources such as wind and solar are equally as vital to curbing carbon emissions globally since they produce far less pollution than their fossil fuel counterparts. Both conservation and transitioning to clean energy are global must-dos.

We also have to note that while the new analysis shows the UK may be underestimating the impact of energy savings, the same may or may not be true in the US. The mix of energy sources in each state varies widely, and this regional variety makes the calculation of emissions per kilowatt hour much more difficult to average out so flatly. But we still know, every little bit counts.

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More on Saving Electricity
Why Do Some States Have Significantly Lower Carbon Emissions Than Others?
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US Carbon Emissions Down 9% Over Last Two Years

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