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Californians' Electronic Toys Waste More Power Than Desert Solar Creates

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An important tool in any desert defender's kit | Photo: Blue Prince Architectural/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A typical Northern Californian household wastes almost quarter of the electrical power it uses, according to a new study, and that has significant implications for the state's renewable energy policy.

The study, conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), determined "always-on" appliances use 23 percent of the average NorCal household's average energy consumption. Such appliances include electronic equipment such as set-top boxes, computers and printers, and game consoles. They also include infrastructural appliances like landlines, doorbells and clocks, and ground-fault circuit interrupter outlets.

All told, says NRDC, a typical Northern California household consumes 164 watts even when no one is home or using any appliances. And when you multiply that 164 watts by all of California's households, that's a lot of wasted energy -- significantly more than is being added to the grid by solar power facilities on public lands in the California desert.

NRDC examined data from more than 70,000 homes in the Bay Area and Fresno for its study, and the group says that the actual wattage figures should be comparable to households in the rest of the country.

Obviously, certain always-on appliances like landlines and those GFCI outlets protecting you from electrocuting yourself in the shower are going to be hard to cut back without significant reengineering. (At about a watt per outlet, GFCI circuits in particular seem like a good use of power.) But the group estimates that of the 164 watts per household, about 51 percent comes from consumer electronics that are left on all the time either by design or through force of habit. Those include the obvious candidates like computers and printers, cable or satellite TV set-top boxes, instant-on TVs and sound systems, wireless routers, and game consoles.

At the risk of making your eyes glaze over, let's briefly crunch some numbers. 51 percent of 164 watts per household is 83.6 watts used by always-on consumer electronics in a typical California household. That works out to each household's consumer electronics wasting about two kilowatt hours per day, and about 733 kilowatt-hours per year.

By way of comparison: if you turned on a 100-watt incandescent light bulb as you kissed your significant other Happy New Years at midnight, you'd need to leave it burning continuously until noon on November 1 to waste the same amount of energy as those consumer electronics.

And when you consider the number of households in California, that wasted energy really piles up. There are a smidgen more than 12.5 million households in California, and according to the NRDC study those households' always-on consumer electronics burn through about 9,195,732 megawatt-hours of electrical power each year.

That's something like three percent of the state's total energy use right there, just from household consumer electronics left on all the time.

What does this have to do with desert solar on public lands? Just this: the state and federal governments have gone to a lot of effort, spent a lot of money, and approved the development of a lot of irreplaceable habitat in a coordinated effort to promote utility-scale solar projects on publicly owned lands in the desert.

Since 2006, the Bureau of Land Management has approved eight utility-scale solar projects on public land in the California Desert. Those projects cover 21,091 acres of BLM lands in the desert, an area larger than the city of Glendale. (Or, for Northern California readers, the city of Concord.)

Those eight projects have a total power generating capacity of 2,875 megawatts. None of them have storage, and thus they generate power only when the sun shines. We thus have to account for dark-skies downtime when figuring out how many megawatt-hours these plants will produce over the course of a year, a concept the electricity wonks refer to as a "capacity factor."

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests that the capacity factor for photovoltaic solar plants runs around 20 percent, while solar thermal runs around 30 percent.

Of the eight public lands projects approved since 2006 by the BLM, six are photovoltaic and two are solar thermal in design. The six PV plants have a total rated capacity of 2,255 megawatts. Multiplying that by hours per year and PV's 20 percent capacity factor, we find we can expect those six plants to contribute 3,953,358 megawatt-hours of power to the state's power grid each year.

Meanwhile the two solar thermal plants on public lands, with a total rated capacity of 620 megawatts, can be expected to generate 1,630,431 megawatt-hours of power for Californians' use each year.

That's a total of 5,583,789 megawatt-hours generated by public lands solar per year in California.

That's about exactly 61 percent of the 9,195,732 megawatt-hours used each year to power California households' always-on consumer electronic devices.

Which means that Californians could have made all those public lands desert solar plants unnecessary if we'd have limited those consumer electronics' power use to about eight hours a day.

Think of it this way: if the state and Federal governments had invested $50 million in power strips for every California household along with an aggressive education campaign to get us to turn our toys off when we're not using them, we could have lost 33 fewer square miles of desert habitat since 2006.

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