Here in New Zealand, we’re lucky to generate 80% of our electricity from renewable sources like hydro, wind, solar and geothermal. Our main electricity source is hydro power, which is relatively easy to switch on and off at will and provides a stable baseline source (at least when the lakes are full). Wind power is also a significant source of renewable energy, but the amount of electricity generated varies greatly depending on current weather conditions and it can’t be stored. On the other hand, the 20% of electricity from non-renewable sources is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels.
As well as having a high overall proportion of renewable energy, some electricity “gentailers” (generator–retailers) in New Zealand produce electricity using 100% renewable energy sources. I used to think I could do my bit to reduce carbon emissions by signing up for power from one of these 100% renewable gentailers. But it turns out all the electricity being generated at a given point in time is fed into the grid and distributed throughout the country to where it’s needed, so the mix of electricity sources is the same for everyone, regardless of who your power company is.
When national demand for electricity is low—or when wind farms are running at full blast—the electricity in the grid comes primarily from renewable sources. But when there is high demand for electricity, the greenhouse gas emissions soar! Fossil fuels are typically used to supply peak electricity demand, because it’s easy to ramp up and down the power supply to cater for sudden spikes in demand. So if you turn the oven on while the rest of the country is already cooking dinner, the extra electricity supplied to run your oven likely comes from burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuel-fired power plants also supplement the power supply when generation from renewable sources is constrained (e.g., low water levels in the hydro dams).
So if all our electricity comes from the same grid, and the carbon emissions from electricity generation vary depending on supply and demand, that raises the question: How do we know whether the current electricity supply is producing lots of greenhouse gas emissions?
I was excited to learn (via Happyzine) that a new app answers that very question, showing the carbon emissions associated with using electricity in real time. The app is called Choice, and was released by Flick Electric Co, an electricity retailer who want to help Kiwis make better choices when using electricity.
I installed the app a few days ago , and it’s been interesting—if somewhat disheartening—to track the electricity mix and emissions profile at different times over the week. The app shows the amount of emissions (in carbon dioxide equivalents) from electricity generation in the last half hour, along with a friendly suggestion to use less electricity while emissions are high:
There’s also a detailed breakdown of which electricity sources the emissions came from, and how much each source contributed to total emissions and total power supply:
Unfortunately, I have yet to see the emissions tracker drop into the “relatively low” range (~350 CO2e), but I’m keen to see whether that changes over time.
Every single one of us is responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from our electricity use. The Choice app by Flick Electric Co can help each of us make better choices about when to use electricity to reduce our carbon impact. If you’re in New Zealand, give it a try! And if you’re not, are there any similar initiatives where you live?