Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 8 April 2012
Now we’re feeling the heat – literally.
The period from February to May is the hottest time of the year for most parts of Sri Lanka, with average day-time temperatures hovering around 31 degrees Centigrade (C). The peak for specific locations can be higher.
True, the extremes that our mercury rises to (36 in Colombo, or 40 in Vavuniya) are still a good 10 degrees cooler than what Indians endure for weeks every summer. But we islanders like our creature comforts: fans and airconditioners (ACs) come to our rescue.
Half of all households in Sri Lanka have at least one electric fan, according to Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10, conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics. It’s the commonest domestic electrical item, followed by sewing machines, refrigerators and washing machines. The survey didn’t ask about ACs. Neither did the just conducted census of population and housing.
But as income levels and aspirations rise, fans and ACs are used by more people, and more often too. Such lifestyle choices are allowed in a market economy, but cumulatively they drive up the demand for electricity.
Since over 80% of our electricity is thermally generated — using costly petroleum or coal – that’s a massive drain on foreign exchange in a country that has neither resource. No wonder the Minister of Power and Energy is a worried man these days!
His colleagues at the Finance Ministry are trying to help. A circular issued on 16 February 2012 instructed all state sector institutions to use fuel and electricity “in an efficient and cost effective manner”. Among other things, it asked ACs in public offices to be turned on only from 10 am to 3 pm.
It’s commendable the state sector tries to lead by example. We can only hope everyone falls in line, and no exemptions are made!
We’ve been here before. In mid 2011, faced with a severe drop of water levels in hydro power reservoirs, the Ministry of Power urged us to: switch off unnecessary lights while watching TV; stop using “smoothing” irons, washing machines and water motors; and reduce AC use by instead using fans — especially during peak consumption hours from 6 to 10 in the evening.
Energy Literacy low
Despite these appeals, our overall ‘energy literacy’ is still low. Many don’t understand which electrical or electronic appliances consume more power – and why. And it’s hard to generalise because of high diversity in models, modes and uses.
Some appliances — like irons, water heaters and microwave ovens — draw high quantities of electricity for short periods. Others – such as refrigerators — use power round the clock, eventually adding up.
ACs are definitely power guzzlers, hence their image as a high cost ‘luxury’ item. They are also a double whammy because many of them actually waste power (and cooling effect) due to bad building design, poor maintenance or user apathy.
A more rational and sensible use of air conditioning can save power without trading off comfort. Right now, so many offices, hotels, cinemas and shopping malls just love to freeze staff and visitors!
During a Colombo symposium this week to mark the birth centenary of eminent economist Ernst Schumacher, two speakers referred to this widespread waste.
Discussing energy policy of Sri Lanka, electrical engineer and power sector planner Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya wished for an “energy efficiency police” – a hotline for anyone to complain about specific instances of gross energy inefficiency!
“Our (law) enforcement is non-existent. The Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA) has been talking about legislation for years. If these were on, many 5-star hotels in Colombo that freeze their guests would have been fined many time over!” he said.
When outside temperatures rise above 30 degrees C, indoor cooling at 26 C can provide reasonable comfort. Only specialized places, such as operating theatres, need lower temperatures.
But many public-access spaces in Sri Lanka bring it down well below 26, sometimes to as low as 16!
Dr H Sriyananda, emeritus professor of engineering at the Open University, pointed out how tropical buildings can be designed for optimum use of natural light and ventilation. In the long term, architects, engineers and builder have to get involved.
And in the short term? On its website, under energy conservation tips, the SEA already asks us to “set the temperature of the AC to 26 degrees Celsius”. See: http://tiny.cc/26C
Enter Cool Biz
Since gentle persuasion hasn’t worked, the SEA and Ministry should up the game to the next level. Why not adopt the Japanese practice of Cool Biz?
Introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Environment in 2005, Cool Biz was an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. The aim was to ensure that the thermostat on all ACs – in public and private buildings – was fixed at 28 C through the summer.
That wasn’t very cooling, but still offered relief when outdoor temperatures soar to 35 C or higher. In Japan, where community mindedness is high, everyone soon fell in line.
The campaign went beyond temperature regulation. A Cool Biz dress code advised office workers “to wear trousers made from materials that breathe and absorb moisture”. Men were encouraged to wear short-sleeved shirts sans jackets and ties.
Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself set the tone, wearing informal attire to work. Clothes designers and retailers introduced work clothes made of fabrics more comfortable even at higher temperatures.
Cool Biz changed the Japanese work environment – and fast. Early on in that first summer, unaware of its introduction, I turned up at a government office in Tokyo to find I was the only one formally dressed…
That first season of Cool Biz saved Japan around 460,000 tons of Carbon Dioxide emissions (by avoided electricity use). That’s about the same emissions from a million Japanese households for a month.
The following year, an even more aggressive Cool Biz campaign saved an estimated 1.14 million tons of the planet warming gas.
The idea has since travelled beyond Japan. In 2006, the South Korean Ministry of Environment and the British Trade Union Congress both endorsed the idea. Last summer, ‘Super Cool Biz’ helped Japan cope with the summer energy crunch caused by the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis.
ACs are part of modern life. Banning their use or maligning users isn’t the answer. We can improve our AC efficiency. Let’s adopt our own Cool Biz to cool off without it costing the Earth (or our island)!