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  • Ian McClellan

Week 22: I will go vampire hunting.


Language, can be so dramatic. The words we choose create an immediate and lasting image. Words can be like vibrant colours in the mind's eye, or can be sharp and dramatic in simplicity. A lingering rainbow can light up a dark sky and leave you feeling changed, but a bolt of lightning can too.


I was thinking about this today, as I was reading about vampire power.


This is not the name of a new band, or the winner of the virtual Grand National. It is not the newest Bond villain, and is not the protagonist in the latest blockbuster video game.


Vampire power, is less dramatic. It is the little red light on your TV, that allows you to switch it back on quickly and without the dependency of having to reconnect to your wi-fi or remote. It is the LED clock on the oven or microwave, or the little ring on your entertainment box or video game console, that allows you to jump back in quickly, or allows updates to happen overnight. It is the power that is drawn by electronic appliances and devices when they are switched off, or in stand-by mode.


But call it vampire power, and it makes us listen. Sucking electricity from your power sockets against your will. Furtively hiding in the shadows. Using the cover of darkness to go about it's suspicious and evil ways, as if the plug itself was fangs, draining life from the wall and from the world itself. Undead, ageless, and only defeated through most severe of actions, a metaphorical stake through the heart.


I need to stress that I do not have an alternative description for vampire power. I also grew up in the 1980s, where current and classic vampire images included echoes from the Hammer horror movies, and so for me the term immediately has an intended impact and a reaction that others may not identify with. The glamour and popularity of gothic horror changes over time, and in the age of Twilight the meaning might be softened, might not sound so velvet-cloaked, red-eyed and ashen. I read that it is also called phantom power now, or ghost power, which might be a sign of these changing times.


I also happen to think that although dramatically named, it is quite a good description for the hidden drains to our individual and household electronic gadgets, and is an opportunity to be more planetwise. Vampire power is named after a myth, but is very real.


It is also relevant right now, because we are at a moment in our lives where we are working from home for the next weeks, and might have been doing this already for several weeks already. We are using our home kettle or coffee machine more frequently, we are perhaps working from laptops, and are anxious that our mobile devices are always fully charged to make sure to communicate with colleagues, friends, family. Our children are more in charge of the TV or gaming console than they have been previously.


I can see from screen time reports, that my own screen time is about an hour and a half a day, which is up about a third from before travel was restricted. Messaging applications such as WhatsApp are now the most used in my own repertoire of applications, which is unusual in my own usage.


We are using more home power than before, especially on our communication and entertainment devices, because we are spending more hours at home.


There is a trade-off, that our workplaces should be saving power. Your computer is plugged in at home, and therefore it is not plugged in at work. You are not making a coffee at work, or purchasing one from the local coffee shop or hatch, and therefore there is a direct trade off to the beans being ground elsewhere, or your chai latte having home-made froth, if any froth at all.


Therefore the vampire power that we are using right now, is a short term difference in our lives, but this short term pressure can become the inspiration to create a new habit that is relevant and can be applied permanently in related ways.


So this week, I am going to go vampire hunting.


From my research, I also found there are many theories about vampire power, and a lot of misinterpretations or outdated facts that also reflect the changing times and should be mentioned up front. The scale of vampire power to each individual and each household, and the impact to devices and appliances is constantly changing and developing, with efforts especially being made to balance consumer desires, with more efficient technology.


For example, modern devices are designed to consume way less power than we were led to believe in older campaigns that stressed the money-saving benefits of switching devices off at night above any other benefit. Right now, the stand-by light on your TV might be consuming 10-times less power than a TV that was purchased a couple of decades ago because of legislation and the responsible moves of producers. Vampire power is unlikely to get out of the single-digit percentage in terms of consumption of your own residential power, and therefore is unlikely to have a significant impact to home budgeting. There is also some good balancing arguments that emphasise this, such as the view that skipping a charge on your mobile phone at night might seem like a big thing, but will only save the equivalent energy or carbon consumption to driving your car for one second.


Mobile devices and laptops, are also designed to stop drawing power once fully charged, and as far as I can read are not damaging the battery by being used whilst wired up. Charging units and adapters are now smart enough to stop taking power once they sense a device's battery is full, and therefore take a trickle of electricity to preserve the 100% charge rather than continually drawing electricity inefficiently. It is therefore more important to clean your washing machine regularly, or make sure your dishwasher is only used on a full load, than it is to worry about whether your laptop is stealthily contributing to the power stations being at full tilt.


I guess in other words, finding small ways to preserve power and hunting our vampire power, does not have the incentive of making a major difference to your household budget, and should not be a campaign that takes us to the streets against mobile of video game devices or social media. It is a little change, not a climate saviour.


But also, less is not zero. A trickle is better than a leak, but still suggests wastage. If it is not off, then it is on. Even if the amount wasted through vampire power is as low as suggested, if multiplied per device, it can add up. It adds up in the number of devices we have, but also adds up because we are all connected. Even if our vampire power is only in the single digits of percentage of our monthly consumption, with 27 million households just in the country that I live, it means that we could be collectively powering somewhere between half a million and a million phantom homes per year. If we then consider that the electricity consumption in the UK can be several times higher than in other countries, it shows that little changes can make a difference. By making little changes, we can contribute to a saving that is far more significant in other ways. I sit in a UK house, but I am part of a global population.


We are all connected. Our little changes do have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. If we can save electricity on our home, not versus another home in another street, or another country but versus what we use now, this is a change that can make a difference. If one hundred of us made changes, we individually would not see the benefit to our bills, but we would be making a difference to the planet.


The changes we can make, might sound very basic to many. There have been campaigns to switch off lights when we are not using them, or to switch to energy saving light bulbs for decades. It is now a very natural thing to switch off lights as we leave rooms and to buy energy saving bulbs, and it is often one of the first things we teach our children and could be considered their first environmental habit. However, when our routines change, so can our habits. Right now, because of the work and family pressures we have, and despite the lighter mornings, I am at a desk whilst it is still dark outside and before shared childcare begins. Looking around me now, I just realised that I switched a light on earlier whilst it was still dark, and I forgot to switch it off now that the sun is up. I switch the light off, and the electricity trickle stops too.


From a device perspective, there are some changes that we can make each evening without any real impact to our lives. By turning off the TV and associated entertainment devices at the wall when we go to bed, rather than at the remote, can save stand-by time overnight. It might not be much of a saving, but for the minor inconvenience of the two-and-a-half minutes it takes for the TV box to come back online, it feels like a worthwhile change to make. Doing this in between TV sessions can be important, especially if we have children who have a morning session of TV, but then do not watch it again until after home school. Even if you consider yourself a heavy TV viewer, or if you are using downtime to binge watch a series you never been able to manage before, the chances are that the TV is off more than it is on, over a 24-hour period.


Take this further to your work devices, and there are small changes that can be made to these habits. A laptop will only pull a trickle of power when it is fully charged and closed, but if we use it plugged in all day, when the laptop is open and the screen is on, the trickle is a little higher. Modern laptops can survive for many hours without being plugged in. Even my own laptop, which is practically a relic at six years old, will give me a good proportion of a work day of regular emails and video calls, before needing a charge.


Plus, as we are restricted in our movements we are likely only a few steps and a bend or stretch from a plug, perhaps and if we don't already, we can approach our laptop charging a little differently and make a new habit. I will make this change, and leave it unplugged for a bit longer, only charging it when needed. I will also close the lid when I stretch my legs or go to the bathroom, to save the moments before the device itself goes to sleep.


When we return to work, we can then take these habits with us, or notice more what commercial scale workplaces already do to help the planet. Most companies are now thinking about how to become carbon neutral, or reduce their carbon footprint, and any new habits that we can take back with us to work or can suggest whilst we are seeing our old haunts with new eyes, I am sure will be welcomed. Many do small things already, that we don't notice, and that we could introduce at home when we likely notice them again after a break in our routines.


On this note of using our own routines to be more planetwise, I was also reading about how to help balance out demand for electricity, and as a consumer try to help reduce the strain on electricity production during busy times. This is phenomenon that is less important as electricity suppliers become smarter with generation and supply, but there are many stories from olden times and from more recent moments that are interesting to read and learn. I am not talking about living off-grid, more to avoid peak times for our own non-essential electricity use for the good of the planet.


For example, the biggest surge apparently in UK history, was after Chris Waddle missed the crucial penalty in the football World Cup semi-final tie with Germany, that led to England's elimination from the competition. It was a game that was watched by 26 million people in the UK, and at the moment that the ball flew over the crossbar, we apparently all left the TV and went to the kitchen in search of a stereotypically consolatory cup of tea, and caused a surge to the equivalent of over a million kettles being boiled simultaneously.


It is silly example, but the fact is that at peak moments, the national grid often relies on more carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation to meet demand. Therefore, if we consider avoiding peak times for electricity heavy jobs such as the washing machine or dishwasher, then we can all contribute to reducing the need for electricity from sources that are quick but less kind to the planet. Generally, the biggest peak is considered to be 4pm-7pm, but this pattern might be different right now. The best approach, is probably just to pause and think before we habitually switch on an appliance, and whether we really need to do it right now.


These are very small examples, and if you search a little on the internet, then finding more hacks of this type is straightforward. Many energy firms will position these as budget saving, which they may be, but they are also planet-saving too. And whilst you are searching, then you cannot go far wrong in making sure you are using the right energy supplier. We have switched to a UK company called BULB (https://bulb.co.uk/energy/), who are one of the growing number of providers who are providing electricity from 100% renewable sources. Switching is really easy these days if you use a specialist switching site, and if you are not sure about which electricity supplier of this type to use, then sites such as Ethical Consumer, are credible places to learn more.


Of course, there are larger and more permanent changes to be made as well. In the spirit of reducing, and if your lifestyle can support it, there is the option to use less devices and many reading this would be correct in pointing that out. In the spirit of reusing, you can cook in batches or have more cold meals. There is the option to use wash less, find analogue entertainment, and I am sure many other good ways to reduce our energy consumption alongside vampire or phantom power. There are even more permanent ways of creating electricity rather than purchasing it from a supplier, and there is a lot of information out there about installing solar in our own homes, or geothermal power. Turning the thermostat down a degree or two, even small DIY projects such as using old duvets to reinforce your loft insulation, will all help during this time when we are all at home and therefore consuming more electricity as part of our daily lives.


However, if we accept that we will live with electricity, and that small changes are what we can achieve right now, then hunting the sources of vampire power is a way of being planetwise and using our connection with each other to make big changes. It is a habit that I think contributes more than we think, if we do it in large numbers.


It is a bit unfashionable to think that we don't do it already, and maybe even suggesting it is a contributing factor versus some of the more popular trends for being planetwise, but I feel that in our house at least, we could get better in comparison to where we are right now. Sometimes, it is just the unglamourous basics that make a difference. We live on a planet without an ego, and one that doesn't believe in vampires, but that knows all about losing the lifeblood of its own existence.

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