13 October 2014

measuring our environmental impact - electricity.

In late September, more than 300,000 people marched the streets of New York City in what organizers called the largest climate-change demonstration in history. Many folks from Maryknoll were present to showcase their support. This event coincided with the United Nations Climate Summit 2014, attended by 125 world leaders to discuss climate change.

Ashley and I have been talking for the past year about how the decisions we make should reflect our values. Well, we decided to not only talk about it amongst ourselves, but also to do something about it and share with others in the event that it may incite a similar response, or at least a critical reflection.

It is highly difficult to improve without defining what progress looks like and then measuring the impact. So in this post, I'll be looking at our environmental impact as it relates to electricity usage.


Now I have written about our electricity before, but this post will take a different angle.

What we learned

When Ashley and I first moved into our Tanzanian home, we were surprised by the cost of electricity compared to what we paid for our apartment in Dallas, Texas. Despite having less square footage and 90% less income, our monthly electricity bill increased by 62% (I am crazy and keep detailed records of everything). We knew that we could not sustain this increase. To adapt, we decided to carefully consider how we use electricity, not only to the betterment of our wallet, but also to the betterment of the environment. Quick side note: anyone else get slightly creeped out by the phrase "Mother Earth"?


What we did about it

We only turn lights on when absolutely necessary, using natural light as much as possible to fill our home. Not all, but most of our light bulbs our high efficiency bulbs that use less power. When the power does go out (quite frequent in our neighborhood), we generally use an inflatable solar lamp rather than a battery-powered flashlight or a kerosene-burning lantern (though we admittedly have all types since our singular solar lamp only lasts so long).

this inflatable solar lamp rocks.

Also, we changed the temperature of our refrigerator and freezer to the least cold settings. This had a big impact on our overall electricity usage. The stuff in the freezer is still frozen, and the food and beverages in the fridge are plenty cold.

i can only assume the "winter" setting would cryogenically freeze our food for the rest of eternity.

But we wanted to see if we could do more.

For one month, we ran an experiment whereby we completely turned off our refrigerator and freezer every night for roughly ten hours. During those thirty days, I took multiple readings per day of our meter to measure the impact on our electricity usage. It turns out that this action results in a savings of one kilowatt of electricity usage every twenty-four hours, or 8,760 kilowatt-hours saved in one year.

Our environmental impact

So what does that really mean? It means that we have reduced our CO2 footprint by over six metric tons annually, which is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from:
  • 1.3 passenger vehicles
  • 14,382 miles per year driven by the average passenger vehicle
  • 2.2 tons of waste sent to the landfill

Six metric tons of CO2 is also equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from:
  • 680 gallons of gasoline consumed
  • 0.8 homes' electricity usage for one year
  • 14 barrels of oil consumed

In other words, turning off our refrigerator and freezer every night was equivalent to taking more than one car off the road or nearly one less home using electricity for an entire year. Not too shabby.

It also means that we save $6.24 every month on our electricity bill, or $74.86 over the course of one year. Oh, and if you are wondering about dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese, butter), we move those to the freezer while everything is powered off for the night.

What this means for you

So, does this mean that everyone should turn off their refrigerator or freezer every night? I don't think so. We're probably nuts for doing what we do. The choice of how you use your electricity is yours to make. The point is this: to consciously consider how you consume resources, and the larger impact of your consumption decisions. Our world is more connected than ever, and the consumer decisions that we make affect those around us, particularly the most poor and vulnerable of our world.

Think about the way in which you use electricity. Consider what is necessary, what is not, and any way that you may be able to reduce your overall usage. If you're already using wind, solar or some other cool form of clean energy, awesome. We have some catching up to do.

Your environmental impact

If you know from your home meter how many kilowatts of electricity you consume, you can use this calculator to convert to kilowatt-hours of energy used. From there, you can input the kilowatt-hours of electricity into the greenhouse gas equivalences calculator to measure your impact. To double-check this figure, you can use this old-school formula to estimate CO2 emissions.

After doing so, I encourage you to talk about and share your results with others. It's the multiplying power of a few lunatics like us who turn off their refrigerator and freezer every night that make a difference. It's the individual drops that make an ocean.

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