Powersmart – BC Hydro tips on saving energy around the house

Saturday, September 30th, 2006

Scott Simpson

BC Hydro’s Gary Hamer, with his hybrid car and a compact fluorescent lightbulb inside the Horne substation in Burnaby. Photograph by : Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Over the past seven days, Vancouver Sun readers have heard from a vast array of commentators, ranging from raw recruits in the northeast gas exploration industry to Canadian elder statesmen, about the present and future prospects for a secure and steady supply of energy, here at home in British Columbia, throughout the country and around the world.

Today, as the series draws to a close, we look at what appears to be an unsustainable appetite for electricity, locally and internationally. We’re also going to suggest some solutions, as reporters Scott Simpson and Larry Pynn invite experts to come into their homes and cast a critical eye on their own energy consumption behaviours.

Our conclusion is that consumers can save money and make small changes that place less of a burden on the environment — while reducing the pressure on industries and institutions to bring new energy supplies onstream.

If Gary Hamer had a set of worry beads right about now, he’d be rattling like a rusted pickup racing along a gravel road.

The source of his anxiety is the digital cable box glowing underneath a television in the living room of a nondescript home in Port Moody. The box is lit up, even though the television is off.

Over the next 12 months, this box will consume $10 worth of electricity — 85 per cent of that power being consumed when nobody is watching TV.

For Hamer, BC Hydro’s senior energy management engineer, the box is not only an example of wasted energy.

It’s the manifestation of a developed nation’s faith that another source of energy is always around the corner to sustain our infatuation with technology.

That faith may be ill-founded.

The world’s primary energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, noted in a recent report that the planet faces a “severe” challenge in securing a clean, sustainable and affordable energy system.

It says electricity generation for lighting is a “major source” of greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to 70 per cent of the annual emissions coming from the world’s automobiles.

The low cost of electricity is identified by the agency as the single largest disincentive to consumer pressure to make changes such as adopting energy-efficient lighting, or energy-smart electronic devices.

For example, the agency says a typical British person uses 12,000 times as much light as 200 years ago — although the share of disposable income necessary to buy that light has stayed the same.

Hamer believes there would be more pressure for change if only consumers recognized the scale of the challenge ahead.

Just consider what is expected to happen to our already overstressed energy grid as the popularity of digital TV boxes increases.

Each little box consumes 155 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Nobody turns them off because it takes a couple of hours to reboot all the guide information they contain.

Hydro estimates 500,000 B.C. households have these units. By 2010, there will be 2.2 million.

Unless manufacturers find a way to curtail the amount of power the boxes consume, B.C.’s 2.2 million units will devour 350 gigawatt hours of electricity per year.

That’s enough power to annually meet all the residential electrical needs of Greater Vancouver’s sixth-largest city, Delta.

You’d have to add another hydro facility the size of Hydro’s Buntzen Lake system — or eight Alouette Lake systems — to create the extra power required.

That’s just the B.C. picture.

Across Canada, 22 million digital boxes will be in use by 2010 — consuming enough electricity to otherwise supply every household in Vancouver and Surrey combined — to keep Canadians up to date with their TV listings and pay-per-view channel access.

To create that much power, you would need an additional hydroelectric facility the size of the Peace Canyon system in northeast B.C — the province’s fourth-largest system.

Take a broader view, and you begin to appreciate the size and scope of the problem that Hamer is looking at.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has given U.S. TV broadcasters a deadline of 2009 to convert all of their broadcasts to high-definition TV.

That means about 220 million of those digital boxes — eating up enough electricity to light 3.5 million homes, or four times the number of households in all of Greater Vancouver.

They will consume 2.6 times the power coming from the No. 1 source of electricity in all of British Columbia, the Gordon Shrum Generating Station at W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River system.

You’d have to flood a region with a surface area of 4,680 square kilometres to meet the demand from all those boxes.

That’s more than twice the surface area of the largest body of fresh water in B.C., the Williston Reservoir that feeds the Bennett/Shrum system. You could fit Stanley Park into it 1,170 times.

BC Hydro’s internal culture has developed a name for appliances that consume power while on standby. They are called “vampire loads” because they drain energy out of the electrical system without returning any value to either the consumers who own them or the economic life of the province.

Their continued and expanding use compels electricity providers to accelerate development of new supplies.

Hydro’s Hamer sits on a Canadian Standards Association technical committee that is preoccupied by digital signal boxes.

“It’s kind of funny sitting around the table,” says Hamer, “because the manufacturers say, ‘We only build what the cable companies tell us to build.’ The cable companies say, ‘We only build what the customers want to bring in.’

“Nobody is concerned about the power consumption.”

There’s more to this impending horror story.

In a typical home, the array of devices adds up quickly — computers, printers, second and even third TVs, modems, cellphone chargers and many others. Even regular incandescent lights, as the International Energy Agency noted, are a threat to future energy security.

The agency says switching to energy-efficient lighting such as compact fluorescent and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) would save the world $2.6 trillion US by 2030.

Meanwhile, the scramble to keep pace with demand continues.

Ontario has the most ambitious plans in Canada — $70 billion to upgrade and expand its aging electricity system.

The scale of the problem is smaller in B.C., due to a legacy of high-quality hydroelectric resources, but the province is no longer independent of volatile North American electricity trading markets that can add tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars to the annual cost of providing electricity in B.C.

Last July, Hydro announced it was accepting private-sector bids for $4-billion worth of new electricity projects over the next four years — and that’s barely enough to cover the shortage that will emerge from growth in electricity demand over the time it takes to build them.

In spite of all the new projects, BC Hydro’s consumer rates for electricity remain third-lowest in Canada. Only Manitoba and Quebec, also blessed with sprawling hydroelectric resources, are lower.

In British Columbia, the biggest challenge may be changing the habits of consumers.

According to the International Energy Agency, each Canadian annually uses 17,290 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to 13,066 in the United States, 6,231 in Great Britain, and 1,379 in China.

“Getting people focused on how they use power is a real challenge,” Hamer says.

With that in mind, two Vancouver Sun reporters arranged home energy audits — hoping to cut down on their own household energy costs, but also to pick up tips useful to other consumers.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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