By Johan Muller industry analyst and Megan van den Berg industry analyst

30 March 2012 – Earth Hour 2011 witnessed 135 countries and more than 5,200 cities across the globe, switching off their lights for an hour to send a powerful message for action on climate change, according to the official Earth Hour website. From its beginnings in Sydney, Australia in 2007, the last Saturday of March each year has become a scheduled event on the global calendar, labelled Earth Hour.

Although Earth Hour has garnered (in some instances) a type of emotive and fashionable herd mentality response from people and cities, the real issue is: what is the raison d’être behind Earth Hour?

It is an initiative with the simple idea of raising awareness as to the effects of uncontrolled energy use. These effects include global warming, loss of energy security and in general, a lacklustre mindset towards energy consumption. Each country’s energy mix and its associated set of energy issues is unique.

South Africa, for example, a hybrid between a purely developing and developed nation, has a multitude of energy supply issues. South Africa’s energy demand is highly likely to outstrip the energy supply this winter (2012), with a potential deficit of 3,000 MW during peak hours. Couple this with Eskom’s recent breach of the electricity margin (global best practice is a 15.0 % margin, with Eskom operating at a margin of roughly 11.6% since 2009) and its use of diesel-fired gas turbines to keep the lights on, and you have an unsustainable system with massive cost implications.
In the context of climate change, South Africa has a semi-arid climate in terms of annual rainfall, and is very sensitive to any changes in the climate. With predicted massive water shortages looming, the future hangs precariously on a few key decisions that will need to be made in the next five years.

One of the current initiatives by Eskom (apart from various market rebates, incentives and other industrial projects) is its recent drive towards energy efficiencies. Frost & Sullivan recently conducted energy studies to determine where South Africa can be more energy efficient. The industrial, agriculture and residential sectors were evaluated as well as commercial and government buildings and various others. Specific products analysed included geysers, air-conditioners, incandescent / CFL lights, pumps, motors and the like.

The results proved that the general South African individual (and business) is unaware of their energy consumption. Few people know the amount of energy they consume, and Rand cost per month of their own geyser, fridge, stove, pump, electric motors and so forth.

This ignorance stems from a legacy of paying cheap electricity tariffs in the past, which has led to a culture of naïve electricity consumption. It is very difficult to make a lasting improvement in energy consumption if you do not even know where you consume electricity inefficiently.  

Consider this example: A typical household, replacing its incandescent light bulbs with energy saving CFLs, will experience savings of between 75% and 80% on the lighting component of its electricity bill.
The table below provides a high level insight into potential cost savings per year. This is based on the assumption that 10 light bulbs per household at 100 W incandescent and 20 W CFL are installed in each scenario, at R1.10 per kWh, in a 30 day month.

Number of Light Bulbs per Household Bulbs Installed and Power Rating Hours Active Daily kWh Monthly Bill Annual Bill
10 100 W Incandescent 5 5 R165 R1980
10 20 W CFL 5 1 R33 R396
Savings R132 R1584

Money saved can be used to action further energy efficiency savings, such as purchasing geyser blankets or installing insulation in your roof to minimise the use of air conditioners and heaters during winter and summer months.

Although celebrating Earth Hour is inherently the right thing to do for all, it would be even more successful if supporters gave their motivation behind celebrating the cause some thought. When you turn off your light on Saturday night, think also of your pool pump and geyser, churning away in the darkness…Switching off single lights is important; yet switching off multiple geysers can be environmentally (and financially) life changing.