Does Saving Energy Make a Difference?

by Safa Hameed

Safa Hameed is a sophomore in bioengineering at UIC. As the energy intern for the Sustainability Internship Program, she is responsible for gathering and analyzing data for the #FlamesWashCold campaign, researching ways to make UIC more energy conscious, and works to make energy and electricity consumption data accessible and engaging.

In this blog post, Safa talks about the benefits of making energy conscious choices at home and at work, and how even though we might not be able to see the effects with our eyes, turning off the lights and conserving hot water actually DO make a difference!

UIC arial view in winter.

Turning off the lights when leaving a room, turning off the tap while brushing our teeth, washing clothes in cold water, and biking instead of driving are just a few of the many habits we are told to practice to help the environment. But have you ever wondered, “how much of a difference do these actions actually make?”

 

It’s hard to imagine that any energy-saving practices at home can make an impact to the environment, especially when you compare the global scale of climate change to small actions like the examples listed above. However, the article “How Does Saving Energy Help the Environment” by Save On Energy explains it perfectly. As the article puts it, “there is a direct connection between your energy use and the environment.” Save On Energy asserts that no matter how insignificant our energy-saving tactics may seem, they are making an impact.

The way that energy use reduction helps the environment is by “decreasing power plant emissions.” A power plant is an industrial building that generates electricity to distribute to consumers and buildings via “the grid,” which you’re probably already familiar with. Power plants utilize coal and other fossil fuels like natural gas to generate power to meet the demand of consumers, and are usually found far away from cities. Even though Chicagoans like you and me might not be able to see any power plants from our apartments, they’re always there churning out electricity for us to use.

 

UIC Greenhouse Gas Emissions graph, showing a business-as-usual case over the next 30 years

The burning of fossil fuels, however, releases poisonous gases including mercury, lead, nitrous and sulfur oxide, and everyone’s favorite–carbon dioxide. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is reported to be the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing heavily to the climate crisis. In fact, the EPA estimates that in 2017, 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. can be attributed to electricity production. When we choose to cut back on our energy use as consumers, the amount of electricity that power plants have to generate is reduced, subsequently lowering the emissions of CO2 and other gases harmful to the atmosphere. While making sure our electricity is provided by renewable sources, it’s also important to make sure we’re only using electricity we actually need, and no more.

So we know that power plants can emit greenhouse gases–so what? For starters, this means that the air quality surrounding power plants is terrible. What’s worse, the people that live near power plants are often economically disadvantaged, and might not have reliable access to health care or health insurance. According to a 2019 study by researchers at Harvard University, an estimated 1.37 million cases of lung cancer will be linked with coal-fired power plants in 2025.

In addition to a public health crisis in these areas, the emissions produced by power plants also contribute to our changing climate; the Chicago Tribune reports that “extreme bouts of precipitation and flooding could be the new normal” in Chicago, which is also expected to have frequent and prolonged occurrences of polar vortices.  Ecosystems and animals are also impacted– Several methods by which natural resources are extracted from the Earth inevitably harm habitats of animals. Oil spills and deforestation, for instance, result in the disturbance of balance in the natural world.

The West Campus steam power plant

 

Meanwhile in Chicago, UIC is taking steps toward becoming as energy efficient as possible. The Department of Utilities and Energy Services (UES) manages two co-generation power plants that power some of UIC’s operations. While generating electricity, the UIC power plants recapture the excess heat produced and use it to heat water for building use. This is where the name “co-generation” comes from: not only does UIC get power from these plants, but we also get heated water. But don’t worry about the gases you see pouring out of the tops of these plants; that’s just leftover steam byproduct. Besides these co-generation power plants, UIC is doing a lot more to reduce our electricity generated emissions, with projects like installing more solar energy, reducing demand through energy education, implementing building standards, and retrofitting buildings with the VCAS energy management team.

Our efforts to decrease our electricity use can directly lower the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that enter the atmosphere. Habits such as purchasing energy-efficient appliances, washing clothes in cold water, biking instead of driving, planting more trees, and many more actually DO make a difference! Even though you might not be able to see the effects of your energy-conscious habits, the planet, the people who live near power plants, and even your monthly electricity bill will thank you!

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