By Geneva Abdul
Want to encourage renewable energy? Timing is everything.
Renewables, by their nature, can be sporadic. The wind isn’t always blowing when you need those turbines spinning. Water levels in hydroelectric dams rise and fall.
But energy demand isn’t sporadic: It tends to run in a predictable curve that peaks during the daylight hours.
That means renewables, so far, can’t always fulfill demand reliably at peak times. Sure, we’ve got solar power, but that, too, is subject to factors we can’t control, like cloudy days. That’s why on-demand energy sources like fossil fuels, which generate plenty of greenhouse gas emissions, are still very important in our energy mix.
Daire McCoy, a fellow at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute, called it “a very dumb system.”
What could make the system smarter? Lowering the peaks in demand by shifting some of our consumption to off-peak hours, typically early mornings and overnight. That could go a long way toward lowering our reliance on fossil fuels. And, depending on where you live and the incentives in place, it might also lower your monthly bill.
Rebalancing demand could be as simple as turning off your water heater for a few hours during the day, or using a timer to run your dishwasher and clothes dryer at night.
Another thing you can do is to avoid using your most energy-hungry appliances simultaneously. For example, don’t run your clothes dryer, hair dryer, oven and air conditioner at the same time. That, in theory, has the potential to raise the daily demand peak.
If you’re not sure which machines in your home use the most energy, this appliance energy calculator on the Department of Energy website can probably help.
Changing behavioral patterns, though, is hard. That’s why governments and energy providers are turning to incentives and smart technology in an effort to balance demand and, ultimately, lower emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide.
One of the main incentives is time-of-use pricing, a system that encourages consumers to shift demand by making energy less expensive during off-peak hours. It’s already being used in California and Illinois. Internationally, it’s in effect in France, Spain and Finland, among other countries.
On the technology side, smart meters can relay real-time information, like how much energy is used and when, so that households can adjust consumption and suppliers can further understand demand patterns. A report by the British government estimated that smart meters could save nearly 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2013 to 2034.
“If we can make the system a lot more flexible,” Mr. McCoy said, “it would allow integration of more renewables, and not having to build extra coal plants.”
Lifestyle emissions of the rich and famous
As Elizabeth Warren is galvanizing the Democratic primary with her promise to tax billionaires to fund health care, a growing body of research is also looking at the role of very wealthy people in climate change.
A typical two-person, very wealthy household — one with more than $1 million in investments in addition to a home and personal property — produces roughly 129 tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide per year, or about ten times the global average, according to a team led by Ilona M. Otto, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Of the 129 tons per year, about 10 come from driving, the team estimated, while powering homes generated close to 20 tons. But one habit accounted for more than half the emissions from very wealthy households: 67 tons of carbon dioxide came from frequent air travel.
Overall, emissions from the world’s wealthiest 0.5 percent produced up to 3.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, or almost 15 percent of the world’s lifestyle-related carbon emissions, the researchers estimated. In comparison, the world’s poorest 50 percent have been estimated to be responsible for only about 10 percent of lifestyle emissions.
Dr. Otto and her colleagues defined lifestyle-related emissions as anything related to personal consumption choices — the heating and energy used at home, or in personal vehicles, or the emissions associated with flying, as well as the food and goods a household consumes — but not emissions related to infrastructure or the use of public services. Their findings were presented in the journal Nature Climate Change this year.
The research had a tiny sample size. The team conducted “lifestyle consumption surveys” with three very wealthy people, one based in the United States and two in South Korea. The researchers also interviewed the pilot of a private jet hired by wealthy customers, mostly in Europe.
Still, the findings loosely track an earlier analysis, by the Paris-based economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, based on national G.D.P. and emissions data for 1998-2013. They found that the world’s top 10 percent of emitters contributed about 45 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the bottom 50 percent contributed 13 percent. (They point out that the world’s top 10 percent of emitters are not just in heavily industrialized countries; a third of them are from developing countries.)
All this, Dr. Otto and her colleagues said, means there is “a largely untapped potential to reduce carbon emissions by altering the way of life of the superrich.”
They argued, though, that taxes alone would not affect consumption patterns — the wealthy quite likely can afford to continue polluting. But more aggressive policies, like restricting household or individual emissions, or imposing renewable energy requirements, might do the job, they said.
Other authors have proposed an inheritance tax that could be funneled to climate action. In 2017 alone, 44 of the world’s richest heirs inherited a total of $189 billion, according to a study by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. That pool of money dwarfs the less than $3 billion in support for climate mitigation projects given out by the four largest global climate funds, including the United Nations Green Climate Fund.
Still, Dr. Otto sounded a warning. “Any form of policy targeted at the superrich is bound to meet with strong resistance,” she said. “The rich are overrepresented in national governments and there are strong ties between the wealthy and the political elites.”