Year 2, Ep. 4: Climate Diet 101 – Green Electricity

Climate Tips, Episodes / Wednesday, March 4th, 2020

I’ve been on a climate diet for a year now, so I thought I’d take a step back and talk about the first steps you can take to reduce carbon emissions. Today I’m talking about electricity and how important it is to our carbon footprint. I also talk about sustainability at the Berlinale this year, and ask listeners to share this podcast with their friends in Saarland.

Electricity use and carbon emissions

Let’s look at my electricity footprint. Last year, we used 1,400 kwh of electricity in my household. Using the standard German electricity mix of coal, natural gas, and renewables, we would have emitted 0,24 tons of CO2, 1/3 the German average of 0,76 tons. But since we use 100% renewable electricity, we emitted 0.02 tons of CO2 last year. In the 15 years I’ve been paying for green electricity, I’ve saved in the ballpark of 3.5 tons of CO2. By being a crazy electricity saver, I’ve saved another 7.5 tons.

Energy efficiency

So in starting a climate diet, you can take a decent bite out of your carbon emissions by looking at electricity usage. Here, as with looking at what you eat, the easier change (in this case, energy efficiency) really gets short shrift. So I want to emphasize that, by looking at my own example, 2/3 of the carbon I’ve saved in electricity emissions is from efficiency measures. The bonus of finding ways to reduce energy use is it saves you money. So here are my big-ticket saving tips:

  • Make sure that any new light fixture you put in is LED. These are X more efficient than fluorescents, and have no dangerous mercury in them. The documentary Bulb Fiction talks about the mercury problem in fluorescents.
  • Use power strips and timers. We have power strips for our entertainment system, our stereo, and our kitchen appliances. This means that when we’re not watching a movie, all of our electronics are completely off, not just in standby mode. Some electronics use up to 30% of their “on” energy in standby mode, especially newer devices that use a wireless internet connection. If you can, put them in airplane mode whenever you can. And you can set a timer to turn off your internet router late at night. I turn my router off as well whenever I go on vacation: this saves electricity and makes sure no one is downloading illegally off my connection when I’m away.
  • Turn off lights and devices when not in use. I’m not the best with my laptop, but I turn off my phone every night before bed and leave it in the kitchen. Better cellphone practice is something that’s critical for your psyche, but it also saves electricity.

Finding a green energy provider

Now, if you’re a regular listener, you know I’m sort of obsessed with one-off changes, things you can change one time that then reduce your emissions consistently over the long run. Last year, I spent several episodes talking about the climate impact of switching to a green bank, which is how I saved nearly a ton of carbon dioxide. If you haven’t done that yet, I recommend going back to episodes 9, 10, and 11 from last season.

So it’s no surprise that I recommend switching to a green electricity provider as well. Part of this is because you can reduce meaningful emissions in one easy change. But you can also make a difference if you pick the right provider: And here I want to stress that the provider is at least as important as the tariff.

That’s because the provider sets the tone on what energy projects your electricity bill pays for. Let’s look at two 100% renewable energy contracts, one with a traditional electricity provider, and another from a community energy initiative. The traditional provider wants to make money, so it will look for the cheapest energy it can find that meets renewable standards. This usually means hydropower, or dams. There’s nothing wrong with dams from a climate perspective, although large hydroelectric dams wreak havoc on river ecosystems, decimating the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest. But if your money is going to an energy source that’s existed for decades, you’re not helping to push along the transition to renewables. This is the impetus for many community energy initiatives or energy cooperatives: encouraging creation of new renewable capacity. The energy co-op will put the money it collects from your electricity bill into new renewables projects, often local or small-scale. So you’re not just guaranteeing that you get carbon-free electricity, but also working with groups on the frontlines of the Energiewende. That’s German for energy transition. Finally, energy cooperatives are nonprofit entities owned by the users, which means your electricity expenses are also working to change the power structure of the energy game: from faceless international conglomerates that use their profits to buy politicians and ensure their future dominance to local communities interested in promoting equity through a just transition. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Bonus: I’ve found that small, green-minded energy firms have far better customer service than the big players.

I’ve been using Greenpeace Energy here in Germany, and used Clean Currents (now apparently defunct) back in the United States. But I suggest looking into what local groups are available where you live. For example, in Berlin, a recent grassroots effort to buy back the electricity grid has led to the local utility to be remunicipalized. So if I were shopping around for an electricity contract today, I might go with the Berliner Stadtwerke. But more on that initiative another time—stay tuned!

Important to remember now is this: electricity is a great way to start a climate diet. And you can reduce your electricity footprint in two ways: by using less electricity, and by buying that electricity from a green energy provider.