Sustainability Theme of the Month: March is for Energy Conservation

Can you believe that we are almost a quarter of the way through 2021? In honour of Earth Hour – taking place on Saturday, March 27th from 8:30-9:30pm – this month’s focus is on energy conservation and how individuals can be sustainable through their energy habits.

What is energy?

Before we go into the details of unsustainable energy use and energy conservation, we need to understand what energy is and how we get it. Going back to the fundamental definition you may recall from elementary school science class, energy is the ability to do work. Therefore, we need energy to perform any task. From a biological level, our bodies need energy to move, grow and recover from injury. From a broader, development-focused perspective, we need energy to build and power our homes and communities.

So how do we get energy, and how do we use it? Energy comes in many forms, and using it typically involves some sort of conversion from one form into another (although not always). First we need to consume materials containing energy, such as food for our bodies, which we transform from chemical energy into kinetic energy that is useful to us. To power our cities, we can use the chemical energy stored in fuel sources like coal and gas, or the kinetic energy of water and wind. Some of these energy sources (e.g. natural gas) can be used directly, such as in a natural gas heater. In other instances, we convert the chemical or kinetic energy into electricity, which helps to heat and power infrastructure and services. This is an important thing to note: energy and electricity are not the same thing. Electricity is just one form of energy that we use. All electricity is energy, but not all energy is electricity!

Breaking down energy consumption – where we get it, how we use it

Power lines with a sunsetThere are two main kinds of energy “sources,” classified based on their renewability (i.e. their ability to regenerate on their own). First are non-renewable energy sources, like fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil. These take millions of years to regenerate, so we realistically have a fixed amount to use in our lifetime (and the lifetime of many generations into the future). The second category of energy sources are renewable energy sources, like sunlight, wind and water. These sources are self-regenerating – we will never run out of energy from the sun. There are other ways to classify energy sources that are less black-and-white (e.g. exhaustibility; stocks, flows and continuous resources) but the renewability classification system is the most commonly recognized and understood.

Where we get our energy and how we use it directly impacts our personal carbon footprint – how many greenhouse gases (GHGs) our personal actions create, which contributes to climate change. Globally, 78% of GHGs are from the production and consumption of energy. Fossil fuels are the most unsustainable energy sources we use. Additionally, the renewability of our energy sources matters because if we build communities reliant on depleting resources, we are leading ourselves to a troubling place once these resources run out. Beyond GHGs, this is another reason that building communities reliant on fossil fuels is problematic – because when fossil fuels run out, what happens to the infrastructure, services, economies and people reliant on them?

How we use energy also matters when considering energy consumption by highlighting where you can focus your conservation efforts. Space heating and water heating account for the majority of our energy consumption at home, and are largely powered by natural gas in Ontario, while appliances, lighting, and space cooling are provided by electricity. As a result, space heating and water heating account for nearly all GHG emissions in the residential sector in Ontario, at 75% and 24%, respectively. Electricity-related emissions from appliances account for the remaining 1%. This is because 96% of our electricity comes from clean, non-GHG emitting sources, including nuclear, hydroelectricity, wind, and solar. Therefore, some of the most impactful actions you can take at home to promote energy conservation are to reduce the need for space heating and water heating, followed by conserving electricity from appliances, lighting, and space cooling. (If you're interested, the average household in Ontario consumes 203 m3 of natural gas and 722 kWh of electricity per month.)

How do you use energy?

While the numbers shared above reflect provincial averages, energy consumption can vary significantly by household. That’s why it’s important to understand how you and your household personally use energy so you can target your conservation efforts efficiently (pun intended).

Here are several tools, resources and methods to help you understand your energy consumption:

  • As a starting point, make a mental list (or written list) of all the ways you use energy in a day – from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep (and what is powering your home even while you sleep). This can help you realize how essential energy is to your daily life, and where you use it most often.
  • If accessible, reviewing your energy bills will provide the most precise breakdown of your energy use. Many utility companies provide detailed breakdowns online.
  • Get a smart metre like Eyedro to gather your own energy data – you can rent them from the Sustainability Office (post-COVID times) and from city libraries.
  • Use the free Project Neutral footprint calculator for a basic understanding of your energy use. While it does not provide exact numbers, it can provide great insights on your general habits and ways to conserve!
  • Have an energy expert conduct an EnerGuide Home Energy Evaluation for a thorough and personalized understanding of your home's energy use, along with specific opportunities for improvement.

Practical tips for conserving energy and electricity at home

How and when we use energy plays an important role in energy conservation, as well. For students/renters especially, energy efficiency is far more realistic to change than energy sourcing, because you may not have control over that in student residences/apartments. Using less energy can create positive change - here are a few ideas for conserving energy:

  • Space heating and cooling
    • Turn up/down the thermostat overnight or when you’re not home
    • Use a programmable/smart thermostat
    • Close vents in unused rooms/areas of your home
    • Open/close blinds to add/reduce solar gain (heat and light)
    • Shut and seal doors and windows to avoid heat loss/gain
    • Perform regular furnace/AC maintenance
    • Report temperature issues instead of using space heaters (students, your landlords should be dealing with this ASAP!)
  • Water heating
    • Cook with a lid on pots/pans
    • Insulate hot water pipes and/or water tank
    • Take shorter and/or cold water showers
    • Use cold water for laundry
    • Wash dishes and clothing only at full loads
  • Appliances
    • Purchase ENERGY STAR appliances
    • Purchase appliances with energy saving options (e.g. automatic shutoff)
    • Unplug appliances when not in use (to avoid “phantom power”)
    • Only use appliances during off-peak times (check out Waterloo's time-of-use rates)
    • Use a smart power bar
    • Charge devices overnight
  • Lighting
    • Turn off lights when exiting rooms
    • Replace incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs
    • Situate desks by windows with lots of natural light to reduce the need for additional lighting

How UW is conserving energy

As part of Shift: Neutral, the university’s Climate Action Plan, the university is taking numerous steps to reduce energy consumption through efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy generation efforts. For one, all new buildings on campus will have to be carbon neutral. Existing buildings will be retrofitted to be more energy efficient, use low-carbon energy sources, and carbon offsetting opportunities will be used to bridge the gaps.

Neutral’s roadmap to carbon neutrality for the university.

Saving energy together: how you can participate in Earth Hour

Since 2007, millions of people around the world have connected over the simple action of reducing their energy use for one hour in the evening. All you have to do to participate is turn off lights, computers, phones and other devices – light a candle, play some boardgames with your household, and enjoy the time without technology! You may think that one hour of powering down doesn’t make much of a difference towards climate action…but if households around the world are doing it all at once, that is a HUGE impact on our energy consumption!

Stay tuned this month for information on the Sustainability Office’s virtual Earth Hour events, and some exciting news!

For more information and resources for reducing your energy use, check out these resources:

How are you conserving energy? Share your actions on Instagram and tag @uwsustainable so we can see how you’re taking climate action!

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