Sun Lunch: Simply making lunch a shared party helps shrink carbon use, nudging peak electric load closer to maximum solar output–for free!
Our current habits place peak electrical demand in early evening, right around the time most people are cooking dinner. Meanwhile solar output peaks around noon. Solar power generation always reduces the energy load, but it could have an even greater impact if we could shift more of our peak load toward the solar maximum. Of course adding storage to the grid helps smooth that difference but this requires much money, time, and planning. Here is a solution that is instant, requires little sacrifice, is better for health and furthermore is FREE!
The idea is to help move some of the peak electrical demand earlier in the day to more closely match solar output. One way of doing this is a fun and socially expansive solution: the Sun Lunch. Simply shifting more of our major cooking to lunchtime reduces electricity demand at its peak when it is more expensive to produce, both economically (since utilities have to generate so much power at once) and ecologically (since that demand is likely partially met by burning fossil fuels.)
Of course this one is only one of many actions that any person concerned for the health of their progeny can undertake, but it might be the most fun! Getting a few friends or family together for a big mid-day meal is not an American tradition as it is in Europe and other locales, but it's no hardship. No doubt all of us have routines that we are reluctant to alter, but when it is the health of the world at stake we'll have to consider plenty of more disagreeable solutions than a lunch party!
What actions do you propose?
Simon Jeffcoat is a British utility employee for whom watching TV is a crucial part of his job. This is because at the end of certain national TV programs electrical demand suddenly spikes by as much as 3 GW as millions of viewers go to the kitchen and turn on the kettle for a cup of tea at the same instant. This creates a demand which he must meet with new power generation within moments, engaging power stations from as far away as France. One false step and a crisis cascades into a blackout! Simple personal habits can have enormous real consequences.
History only moves in one direction. Though we have been reluctant to digest the painful realities that climate change suggests, it is now clear that the only likely way to survive a rapidly warming climate with all its effects is to find creative solutions quickly. We can clearly see that humanity needs to break its addiction to fossil fuels and find sustainable solutions for the future. Regardless of how we feel about it this is the truth we all must embrace if we are going to face the realities before us. We will be required to use our imagination, creativity and determination to adopt solutions in the use of resources, technology, policy, planning, etc. The required solutions will not be easy and will not be limited to certain sectors of the economy or segments the world's population. It will take all of us doing whatever we can to affect the kind of change needed in this, the most epic crisis in history. But with firm conviction, a hopeful attitude and a willingness to cooperate, human ingenuity can achieve not only this, but many marvelous and perhaps currently unimaginable dreams.
Peak demand and peak solar generation
One component of this picture involves the structure and operation of the electrical grid. Human activity in the developed world tends to create a load on the electrical system with daily peaks and troughs. Generally the least amount of electrical energy is used during the night while the peak demand is in the early evening around dinnertime in any local time zone. Since with current technology power must be generated at the time it is needed, when demand increases generation must ramp up to meet that demand. Therefore electric utilities must build the capacity to generate enough power to meet peak demand even if that only happens one hour per day; so it is still almost as expensive to build and maintain as if it were running full-time. If that peak demand can be reduced, that reduces pressure on the entire system. Furthermore, since fossil fuels make up the majority of power generation, a reduction in peak demand is an opportunity to reduce production from burning fossil fuels. If at some point in the future fossil fuels were removed from the power generation chain entirely, the carbon-avoidance aspect of this project would no longer apply, although even then it would still align demand more closely with solar output.
Solar power generation is one of the most effective means of alternative energy production. Enough sunshine falls on earth to generate much more power than could ever be used. It too has a fluctuating daily cycle, but solar generation is only effective during daylight hours and its peak generation is around noon. Therefore even though solar generation helps a great deal to meet peak power demand the two peaks are offset by a few hours. This means that while an increase in solar generation always reduces demand for fossil fuel production, it does nothing to shift demand away from the current evening peak demand. This must be accomplished by either alternative generation, storage capacity, or a reduction in the demand. The Sun Lunch solution applies to the latter. It shifts demand away from the peak toward the peak of solar production during the middle of the day.
As humans move away from the burning of fossil fuels we must be quick to adopt alternative energy, to help the developing world achieve cheap reliable and sustainable energy production, and to embrace an international democratic vision of universal equality across borders of every kind. Solutions will have to be multidimensional, from the individual to the international, and encompass all areas of human activity. The narrow slice of this broad transition that we'll focus on in this project is that of a small change in individual lifestyle.
The lifestyles of the human race that survives the challenges of climate change will necessarily be very different from those of today. Some of these changes will be pleasant enough, like walking or bike riding more often, and some will be more difficult, like forgoing unnecessary trips or limiting our consumption. But we will never return to burning fossil fuels as a solution. So it is clear that the required changes will have to be permanent and the sooner we embrace them the easier and cheaper this transition will be.
One tool we have readily available will make these transitions much easier to implement, and that is something we all have in abundance but not often are called upon to use: our imaginations. The Sun Lunch is perhaps one of the easiest and cheapest possible solutions to implement in the service of reducing the our contributions to climate change. The single greatest barrier to its implementation perhaps is that of a lack of imagination. In this case, once we can make the imaginative leap our work is almost done.
This solution amounts to a lifestyle change but it is a simple, perhaps gradual one and it need not be disruptive. It could be integrated over time as fits one's particular circumstances. Though perhaps one person can't take extra time off work in the middle of the day or can't get to a kitchen, the idea is to shift heavy cooking time–especially that dependent on electricity– from dinnertime to lunchtime. Each of us, given that challenge, can probably think of ways to help, even if it is only by slight degrees or only a few days a week. All journeys begin with small steps.
The Sun Lunch
Some of the electrical demand that makes up the peak demand at the end of each day comes from families and individuals cooking dinner. While much of Europe eats a bigger meal in the middle of the day, habitually most of us consume our major meal–and therefor do our heaviest cooking–in the evening. At the very peak of electric demand when one person turns on an electric kettle, somewhere the generator needs to produce more power to cover that demand. The entire electrical generation system is designed to make sure that that when that kettle is turned on, it doesn't overload the system and cause a regional blackout. So if that person could shift their demand off of the peak, it would ease the burden on the entire system and not just for that period but for the entire day. The Sun Lunch encourages people to shift their major cooking toward the middle of the day and away from the evening. Any person can do this right away, every day on their own schedule or whenever they like. An effective and pleasant way to implement this idea is for a group of people to get together for a shared meal. Perhaps a small community or a family or group of friends gets together to cook for each other a major lunch every day or once a week or even once a month. Even a small act helps.
Of course this idea scales to any degree imaginable. If a thousand households shifted their demand away from the peak, it would relieve that much pressure from an electrical generation system heavily dependent on fossil fuels. In a well-designed world (which is going to be the world and we have if we survive this crisis!) the demand created by the lifestyles of the people will exactly match the generation capacity of an energy system generated from nothing but alternative sources. One way we can get to that reality from here is by shifting power demand away from the current peak. The potential is only limited in effectiveness by the difference in the shape of the daily curves of peak power generation demand and solar output.
The Sun Lunch comes down to personal initiative. For every single person who shifts pressure away from peak demand, theoretically this allows the utility to use less fossil fuels. Every action counts. Although utilities will still plan for a worst case scenario, every person's action decreases the size of that scenario the utility has to plan for. Once a small group begins to meet together regularly for a fun Sun Lunch, the word will spread and others will join in or create their own ritual. As it becomes more widely known that shifting demand away from the peak is helpful for everybody, more and more people will be inclined to join in. This could create a social movement which spreads through campuses, businesses towns, states and could even result in a permanent cultural change. Whole nations and cultures will eventually follow this procedure until peak demand absolutely matches energy output, much of which will no doubt be solar-generated. And it will have been done with the very minimum of sacrifice, an expansion of imagination, and with a great deal of fun besides!
The proposed action is for motivated local entities–whether groups of formal association or just clusters of a few friends–to create campaigns to encourage the Sun Lunch as a means of shifting heavy cooking and its associated extra electrical load away from peak demand to earlier in the day. Though traditionally much of the developed world eats a heavier meal in the evening, nutritionists tell us this is better for health in many ways to shift food intake to earlier in the day. While such actions would be good for human health this one, which also is healthier for the planet, is aimed specifically at shifting the electrical load. This would be the focus of an educational campaign.
Again this concept is perfectly scalable. A small effort will create a small effect, but it will be a real effect. A large effort will result in a greater effect and the larger the effect the more the idea will snowball with greater participation and wider social interaction. The primary target audience would be younger people, environmental groups, low income groups for whom more expensive solutions are not viable, and constituencies who have a keen interest in affecting climate change. The campaign might also target groups with culinary interests, social organizations, service groups, churches, youth groups, college campuses, perhaps even prisons or other state institutions.
Who will take these actions?
The project has two elements. The first is an educational component, consisting of GROUPS spearheading campaigns to educate a target constituency (either the public at large or a smaller community such as a university) to explain the concept of load-shifting and encourage adaption of the Sun Lunch as a solution. The second is the action taken by INDIVIDUALS that change their behavior to implement the desired load-shift. Participation includes actual power shifting (moving electrical cooking activity) and also participating in the shift by supporting such activity in the form of organizing meals, shifting schedules to accommodate such lifestyle changes and even simply attending such meals.
The project should be seen not as a temporary measure but as a social movement with a long-term trajectory. As results are likely to be incremental, success should probably be measured on a long-term basis. Although circumstances are bound to change in the future requiring different solutions, this kind of social lifestyle change in response to a problem that faces all of us equally presents a model of responsive democratic action as well as personal initiative, a model that could be applied to affect similar lifestyle changes that might be implemented in any number of similar directions and situations.
One assumption implicit in the Sun Lunch is that utilities will seize the opportunity provided by a reduction in peak electrical demand to reduce fossil fuel generation. This pressure is already applied to utilities from many different directions–regulatory, economic, environmental, political, etc.–and needn't be considered as a formal part of this project.
Of course utilities will be interested in lessening their peak demands and evening out their load requirements. This will require changes in the industry, but these are changes that are already occurring for other reasons and need not concern us here. But the utilities can be counted on to support this kind of effort in any case.
Where will these actions be taken?
This project would be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through avoidance of fossil-fuel energy production. It does not directly reduce emissions, but eases the burden on utilities, allowing them to favor cleaner generation alternatives. This project would be effective in the context of any electrical grid system anywhere that depends upon a fossil fuels generation component for its peak generation, which describes virtually all grid systems today. Since the initiative wholly rests on lifestyle changes of individuals, it requires no changes on the part of governments, institutions, regulatory or physical systems.
Besides churches and other civic groups, private businesses could also be instrumental in offering Sun Lunch events. These could take the form of internally-organized meals to which employees invite their families, regular picnics, special events to which the public could be invited, and even business ventures like discounted meals, package deals on meals, group deals, etc. Once a certain threshold is reached there would appear a market for deferred-generation services and products that would be fulfilled by business interests. Housing developments, apartment complexes, and even neighborhoods could participate in the Sun Lunch movement. Any place where people find themselves gathered toward the middle of the day presents an opportunity for a formalization of the Sun Lunch. There are many opportunities for increasing personal incentive for involvement, community participation, and social cooperation.
How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?
There are plenty of solutions to climate change that need to be taken, and the more the better. But the Sun Lunch is one of those few things any person can do to effect real positive change in greenhouse gas emissions that costs literally nothing. Effectiveness is dependent on the participant's understanding that they are contributing to a solution and that their contribution is important, so the educational component is crucial. But once a community comes to an understanding of why load-shifting helps alleviate climate change, other similar ideas might just as easily be implemented.
Just as it is true that we all contribute to the problem of climate change–however inadvertently–it is helpful for individuals to know there are real actions they can take immediately and without cost to contribute to the solution.
What are other key benefits?
Health benefits: shifting food consumption to earlier in the day, including: reducing obesity, better sleep, better energy management, better overall health, according to nutritionists.
Awareness of personal impact on climate change dynamics, of the impact of simple community solutions, of solutions through simple individual lifestyle changes.
Encouragement to individuals and communities to adapt similar lifestyle changes.
Health benefits for adolescents through social support.
Concentration on community meal preparation would decrease dependence on less healthy fast food convenience.
Outreach to low income populations, for whom costly changes are more difficult.
Outreach to other special communities such as prisons, schools or military bases, for whom access to other actions might be limited or more difficult.
A greater emphasis on community and cooperation rather than a focus on technology, concentrated effort or special knowledge.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The individual component of lifestyle change would of course be absolutely free. The educational component would cost something but would be scalable according to the vision undertaken. This leaves the budget wide open from a simple social media campaign undertaken by a group of volunteers–costing nothing–to a large formal municipal campaign that might cost thousands year upon year in advertising, event planning, etc. Just as in these other cases, success is seen with the tiniest act. The greater the participation, the greater the success.
Like any other of the many recent successful social lifestyle initiatives such as transitioning away from plastic shopping bags or cutting down on water usage, the Sun Lunch would take time to implement and there is no clearly-marked goal for success. Every little bit helps. A small-group-sized campaign might see good results with a campaign lasting a few weeks or a semester. For a large municipal project, it might run on for years with a number of stages or scopes of focus, growing ever larger and more widely realized.
The most important impact would be seen in the near timeframe (5-15 years). Any campaign would begin to produce results virtually immediately with results increasing over a period of the length of the campaigns. It would take perhaps a few years for permanent changes to be seen within a community and to grow of their own accord. So too the utility's response would be immediate in terms of real effect but might lag by years (15-50 years) in terms of permanent changes like avoiding building new fossil fuel generating plants.
Eventually, (50-100 years) once the movement becomes a social norm and no more load shift is necessary, it is no longer necessary that participants know why they do what they do, even as these changes become part of the DNA of the new culture.
There are many projects in Climate CoLab's Shifting Attitudes and Behavior division that speak to similar issues. The following are highlighted as being particularly close to this concept for the stated reasons:
Break climate conversation out of its shell is an idea that, like the current proposal, hinges on public education.
3C-THINKING to connect ego and eco: CONTEXT<>CONCEPT<>COMPETENCE emphasizes the connection between person and planet, which the Sun Lunch also attempts to do in a real-time way.
Climate Leave is a proposal that, like this one, would be furthered by support from the business environment.
Solar production peaks and energy demand peaks match up only to a degree:
The nature of the electric grid is changing across the US and the globe, as described in The Energy Cloud:
These changes demand that utilities respond to the desires of their customers:
Energy fat can be cut but means of behavioral changes alone:
Technology cannot be relied on by itself to change behaviors:
Peak shifting is an easy way to reduce dependance on fossil fuels:
Much demand reduction can be done by consumers alone: