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Consumers, not corporations, saved the power grid. What else can we do?

Individual decisions can be a powerful force against climate change, but only if they’re pointed in the same direction.

A woman’s hand turns off a light switch against a backdrop of blurry city apartment lights. Bita Honarvar/Vox; Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

World leaders are once again preparing to meet next month to discuss how they’ll address climate change. Known as COP27, the two-week conference in Egypt will gather governments, large corporations, and nonprofit groups, representing billions of people and billions of dollars, all aiming to hash out how best to keep the planet from warming up too much.

For a massive global problem like climate change, it makes sense to tackle it at such a large scale. But that doesn’t mean that you as an individual are insignificant when it comes to contributing to the solution.

In fact, when added up, thousands of small actions, like switching off lights during a heat wave, buying efficient appliances, or voting for politicians who will act on climate change, can become a larger force than what governments and businesses can muster on their own. Put another way, a comprehensive approach to climate change demands actions, both large and small.

“It’s a mistake to only focus on governments and big companies,” said Paul Burger, head of the sustainability research group at the University of Basel, who studies consumer decisions on energy. “It’s also a mistake to only focus on individuals.”

Consumer spending makes up close to 70 percent of the US gross domestic product. About 20 percent of energy in the US goes directly to the residential sector, including homes and apartments. Combine that with other direct energy use, like in the cars people drive, and indirect energy consumption, through things like the food we eat, and your decisions can play a huge role in shaping the course of warming.

These tiny raindrops can pool into an unstoppable torrent, but only if they’re flowing in the same direction. Therein lies the challenge. How do you nudge, cajole, encourage, or force millions of people to make choices that will help adapt to or mitigate climate change?

People have already shown that they can chip in to avoid a crisis, and many are willing to do more to reduce their impact on the environment. But it can be a touchy subject. While some people might be motivated to address climate change, others resent the pressure, whether it comes from a neighbor or from the government. Meanwhile, some of the more impactful decisions people can make are constrained by longstanding policy decisions.

Customers have already saved the power grid more than once this year

Power generation is the second largest source of greenhouse gases in the US. It’s long been the sole domain of major utilities and governments. But this year showed customers acting as major players too.

A massive, scorching, late-season heat wave settled over the West Coast in September. More than 61 million people faced heat advisories, the majority of them in California. Parts of the state saw temperatures linger well into triple digits.

And as thermometers climbed, so did demand for electricity as people cranked up fans and air conditioners to cool down. On September 6, electricity demand in the state climbed to a record high: more than 52,000 megawatts. At the same time, the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, was coping with close to 9,000 megawatts of generator outages, fueled in part by the ongoing megadrought. For reference, 1,000 megawatts is enough to power 750,000 homes.

As people started to head home from work, CAISO warned that rolling blackouts were imminent. At 5:45 pm, California’s Office of Emergency Services sent out an alert to cellphones across targeted counties.

“Conserve energy now to protect public health and safety. Extreme heat is straining the state energy grid,” it warned. “Power interruptions may occur unless you take action. Turn off or reduce nonessential power if health allows, now until 9pm.”

Californians responded. Within minutes, demand dropped by 1,200 megawatts between 5:50 pm and 5:55 pm. The text alert worked, and it ended the emergency. “As a result of this action, the California Independent System Operation (CaISO) saw an immediate and significant drop in energy use, providing some relief to the state’s grid,” according to a state press release.

A graph of California’s power demand on September 6, 2022, showing a peak around 5 pm and a quick dropoff after 5:45 pm, when an emergency text was sent out.
The response of Californians to a text message alert helped stave off blackouts.
Energy Information Administration

Earlier in the spring, the Texas grid operator, ERCOT, similarly asked residents to cut their power use to cope with a heat wave and the loss of several power generators. ERCOT specifically asked residents to set thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and avoid using big appliances between 3 pm and 8 pm.

California has dealt with grid emergencies before, most notably in the early 2000s when the state faced rolling blackouts due to generator shutoffs and power market manipulation leading to exorbitant electricity prices.

In response, the state set up a system to appeal to customers to curb their power use when supplies are tight. More recently, California utilities have deliberately shut off power to their customers in order to prevent wildfire ignitions. So the alert sent in September wasn’t completely novel for the Golden State, and residents were primed to act.

“Californians, they have more understanding of the grid and how responding to public appeals can make a difference,” said Peter Cappers, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studies electricity markets.

But such alerts are a blunt instrument, asking for power reduction across the board without regard for who is most vulnerable, what parts of the power grid are closest to the brink, or where the most effective cuts can be made. “It’s going into surgery with a chainsaw and not a scalpel,” Cappers said. “Because of that, it’s not a long-term solution.”

How you can become a power player on the power grid

A more robust strategy for getting customers to change their energy use patterns is demand response. Rather than ramping up power plants to meet demand spikes, utilities can offer incentives like lower electricity prices to get people to run dishwashers or charge their cars during off-peak hours. It gives utilities a way to shape electricity use rather than just energy production.

Added up, demand response could shave down peaks in demand and smooth out power consumption across the grid, improving reliability. By one estimate, shifting power loads throughout the day could cut down peak electricity demand by 15 percent by 2030. Industrial customers could shoulder much of this by running equipment at designated times of day, but households can also set their thermostats to use less power.

Harnessing demand for electricity alongside supply can make the power system more versatile without having to build out much more hardware. Imagine that instead of constructing a highway wide enough to accommodate rush hour traffic, cars travel staggered throughout the day, reducing the overall need for road space.

Demand response can also help integrate variable renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power. One of the concerns with solar power in particular is a phenomenon known as the duck curve. As solar power picks up in the middle of the day, demand for other electricity sources dips, but it shoots back up once the sun sets (the shape of the demand curve resembles a duck, according to some people).

Meeting that shortfall requires expensive power plants that can dispatch power on demand, so after a certain point utilities don’t want to add more solar energy to the grid.

Demand response can help turn the duck into something more like a snake. When there is abundant sunlight on a breezy day, utilities can offer lower prices to ensure that more power demand is met with cleaner sources, or they can offer discounts to get people to use less power during the morning and evening peaks.

The problem is that many homes and utilities are not set up to take advantage of demand response. It requires pricing energy in real time, and tools like smart meters that can communicate between a customer and a utility in order to take advantage of incentives.

And there’s only so much that people can shift their power use. It’s easy enough to run a dryer at a different time, but refrigerators run constantly. Meanwhile, people need air conditioners most during the hottest times of day, which is also when demand is high and power supplies are most constrained. For some, air conditioning is a matter of survival.

Over the long term, keeping energy demand in check requires increasing energy efficiency so people can do more with less. According to the International Energy Agency, “Energy efficiency is the single largest measure to avoid energy demand.” For individuals, that could take the form of upgraded appliances or better home insulation to reduce heating and cooling demand.

“A saved kilowatt-hour reduces demand and pays off handsomely,” said Dan York, a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. But while overall energy demand may hold steady or decline, it’s likely we’ll need more electricity in the coming years as vehicles and appliances switch to run on electrons rather than fossil fuels.

Efficiency upgrades can also be costly, and the people who need them most — those for whom energy is a larger share of their household expenses — are often least able to afford them. “That kind of inequity is very challenging,” York said. So policymakers who want to encourage efficiency need to make sure that people with less means are included too.

But alongside power plants, transmission lines, and energy storage, people using electricity more thoughtfully stands to be a pillar of the clean energy future.

Your actions matter in other sectors too, in many different ways

Electricity use is a vivid example, but what you eat, what you drive, how often you fly, and the kind of home you live in also influence the flow of heat-trapping gases into the sky.

However, these are often very personal decisions. Few people grapple with their own consumption and fewer still respond favorably when scrutinized by others. And even if someone has the will to try to reduce their impact on the climate, they may find that they have few options.

Take cars, for example. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and light-duty cars and trucks account for close to 60 percent of this share. That means decarbonizing cars and trucks is essential for meeting climate change targets. California is already slated to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, and New York state announced in September that it will follow suit.

But to hit the US goal of cutting overall emissions at least 50 percent relative to 2005 by 2030, drivers will have to voluntarily swap gasoline for batteries at an even faster pace.

The trouble is, electric vehicles are still more expensive up front than conventional cars. More efficient gasoline-powered cars are also getting harder to find as manufacturers are increasingly building larger vehicles. Companies like Ford have basically given up on selling sedans in North America in favor of larger crossovers, a trend taking over the auto industry. In 2021, SUVs made up 45 percent of car sales, driving up global carbon dioxide emissions.

An image showing dozens of crossover SUVs from different manufacturers.
These are all, ostensibly, different vehicles.
Adrian Hanft

Even electric vehicles are becoming massive, undermining their environmental benefits, with some of the largest EVs proving to be worse for the environment than small gasoline-powered cars. It takes more energy to move a larger vehicle, regardless of the power source, so the environmental benefit of running on electricity isn’t straightforward.

How much of this is due to customers who want more size and power versus manufacturers pushing vehicles with higher profit margins? It’s hard to say, but it’s likely a mix of both.

For those who want to give up driving altogether, it’s even more challenging. The majority of vehicle trips in the US are less than 10 miles, but in much of the country, it’s impossible to get around without a car. More than three-quarters of Americans get to their jobs in a car.

This means that in order for people to even have the choice of decarbonizing transportation, a number of major structural changes from governments and private companies have to occur, from better public transit, to more walkable communities, to cheaper, cleaner cars on dealer lots.

On the other hand, some of these major changes may be more feasible than previously thought. The Covid-19 pandemic and the more recent spike in global energy prices have proven to be immensely disruptive, but they also highlighted the lifestyle benefits of changes like remote work and getting rid of commutes. Tactics like designing homes that use less energy and eating healthier diets aren’t just good for the climate; they also enhance our quality of life.

“People often talk about having to give up something and become very modest,” Burger said. “I believe this is the wrong strategy. The really important question is, what are the possible new gains?”

In addition, people who are concerned about climate change can do more than alter their consumption patterns. Individual actors can become a powerful force for shaping major policy decisions, like pressuring lawmakers to set tougher limits on greenhouse gases and higher standards for efficiency.

Taken together, personal actions on climate change do matter. While that can seem like an immense burden when facing the potential of more extreme heat, drought, sea level rise, and social disruption, it can also be empowering.

“When we are only looking at the government, or industry or businesses, what we miss is the potential of households to be movers themselves, to become part of the energy transition,” Burger said.