Earth Hour: Doing more harm than good?

A confession: I did not observe Earth Hour on Saturday.

My Main Squeeze and I had friends over for dinner, and between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. the lights were on, the thermostat was turned up, the stereo was on and the oven and stove were both in use. We were having such a lovely time that it wasn't until the next day that I remembered, with a pang of guilt, the annual lights-out event. Oops.

But the more I've thought about it since, the more I'm starting to believe the tokenism of things like Earth Hour is perhaps doing more harm than good.

Participating in a publicized, global effort to power down for a single hour all year might give you a warm, fuzzy feeling that you're "doing something" to save the Earth. But what does it actually achieve?

Sure, the whole idea behind Earth Hour is to get people thinking about energy consumption and global warming, and is hopefully a jumping off point for further action. But I can't shake the feeling that in reality it's nothing more than a panacea for the masses to continue on our merry wasteful ways.

Let's take my delightful dinner party, for example. With a little forethought, we could have cooked the meal before 8:30 p.m. and dined by candlelight with the radio and heat turned off. But with the energy used to prepare the meal having been consumed before Earth Hour, how much electricity would we have really saved by turning off the lights, stereo and heat for a single hour?

A better question: How much would we have really been sacrificing?

On a municipal level, efforts to turn off the "festive lighting" and heat tracing in the Village and power down other municipal facilities for the hour sound fairly significant. But again, it's only a token hour in an entire year.

To be fair, according to a press release, the municipality reduced its energy consumption in 2011 by 4,700 gigajoules across all muni buildings compared to the previous year. That's equivalent to the energy consumed annually by about 50 houses in Whistler, the release says.

We think that's actually a much more powerful message about longer-term energy reduction than the much publicized 5.67 per cent reduction Whistler-wide during Earth Hour.

Contrasting that happy news, however, is that even though Whistler has ranked in the top-five energy reducing communities in B.C. in the last three years of Earth Hour, according to Whistler 2020, resort-wide energy use continues to rise year over year. (Again, to be fair, no Whistler-wide energy use stats are available for 2011.)

It might not fit into the sleek marketing plan behind Earth Hour, but what about an Earth Evening or something similar? And what if we did it every week? Now we might actually be making a drop of difference in the bucket of energy consumption and climate change.

Better yet, perhaps B.C. Hydro could start a schedule of rolling blackouts to force us to learn to live without 24/7 electricity. I'm actually serious. If you knew that for five hours every Wednesday evening Whistler would be without power, you'd learn to adjust and work around it. As demand for energy increases and prices continue to rise, that might be the reality in the future anyway.

On a provincial level, B.C.'s total electricity load was reduced by 1.67 per cent during Earth Hour this year. Is it just me or does less than two per cent sound pretty pathetic?

While hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents likely participated in the event, with 91 communities having registered, the whole thing also seems a little arbitrary.

B.C. Hydro measures the Earth Hour electricity consumption against the same hour the previous week. I'm no expert on energy use, but couldn't we reduce consumption by 1.67 per cent if March 31 happened to be a warmer day than March 24 and people didn't need to turn on the heat?

The bottom line is to make a real difference we're going to have to do much more than turn off the lights for an hour each year.

- Jennifer Miller

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