Use more energy to use less energy?

Written by erik


We’ve all seen Chevron’s attempt to convince the country that it is on the side of energy efficiency. Ads in every medium declare sincerely that the company is willing, ready and able to join consumers in using less energy in all forms. Usually I just dismiss the cognitive dissonance and carry on with my day.

But this weekend I came across this giant LED billboard touting, yes, Chevron’s energy efficiency message. Hm. That doesn’t seem very energy efficient, I thought to myself. Perhaps it would be interesting to run some numbers.

First, I did a little research on the power consumption of LED billboards. I can’t tell from the photo which exact brand of LED billboard the outdoor advertising company has installed here, but by looking at technical specs here and here and here, I concluded these billboards have an average power draw of about 400 Watts per square meter.

Then I looked up some standard billboard sizes, and concluded that Chevron’s ad appeared in one that was approximately 10 feet by 22 feet, or about 20 square meters.

Multiply by my estimated 400W per square meter, and that’s 8 kW average draw for the whole billboard. Assume it is on for the full 24 hour cycle, and that’s 192kWh/day.

For context, we had a little discussion the other day where a couple of us estimated our home energy consumption at more like 20 kWh/day. Let’s take that as a general average, although it might be on the high side for readers of this blog. That means that the LED billboard is using the power of almost 10 homes.

OK, let me be just a little bit charitable to Chevron here, since they are not the sole advertiser on the board. They appeared to be one of 6, rotating in even time increments. That means that Chevron’s advertising spending on this single billboard is responsible for using about 32 kWh/day, the same amount of power as (and producing the carbon footprint of) 1.5 homes.

Let’s review — the guy on the Chevron billboard says, “I will use less energy.” That one billboard uses more energy than I use to power my entire house. Conclusion: even by shivering in the dark I couldn’t save enough energy to offset that one sign.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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  1. Katie

    I forwarded the link to this post to Chevron through their general comments email.

  2. Chad

    While I appreciate your analysis and the level of detail, you forgot to compare the use of an LED billboard to that of a traditional paper billboard that is illuminated from dusk to dawn. What is the environmental impact of the paper, inks and glue; installation & disposal of the ad; illumination? Do LED billboards use less energy at night because they don’t have to be as bright as during daytime? Maybe Chevron did this analysis and chose LED because it has a smaller carbon footprint. I don’t know the answer. But I think this is a critical missing piece of your analysis. Maybe Chevron made the right choice.
    PS – I’m not drinking Chevron’s kool-aid either, but I am for fair and accurate reporting.

  3. Emily

    On the other hand, we don’t know how effective those billboards are. For instance, how many people would have to switch to CFLs each day to offset the carbon footprint of the billboard? A lot, obviously … but more than the number who actually do? I don’t know.
    Most billboards are up for a set period of time. But most of us know from experience that energy efficiency is not something we do for a set period of time and then quit. It starts small, grows, and then ripples out. When I was a freshman in high school, a socially conscious senior designed a beautiful full-page ad for the school paper, encouraging us to do something positive for the environment. Eighteen years later, I live in a solar-powered house and raise bees, chickens, and organic vegetables in my back yard. Five years ago — inspired, in part, by my lifestyle — my parents fulfilled their lifelong dream to go “back to the land,” and my little brother and his wife have followed suit.
    If that kind of ripple effect comes from one ad in one high-school newspaper, how much greater could the impact be from a whizbang LED billboard on a busy road with thousands of drivers looking at it every day? If a tenth of those drivers were inspired by the billboard to make one small change today, and that small change led them to a lifetime of positive changes, how long would it take for them to offset the impact of keeping that billboard up for a few months? And if the billboard is going to be there anyway, wouldn’t we rather have it promoting an environmental message than encouraging people to buy more stuff they don’t need?
    I certainly appreciate irony (I used to hum “Big Yellow Taxi” every time I passed the sign at the St. Louis Zoo proudly proclaiming that the Insectarium was made possible by a generous donation from the Monsanto Corporation — purveyors of Ortho insecticides), but I’m not sure Chevron’s effort here is as misguided as it seems at first glance. To calculate the cost with any kind of accuracy, we’d have to know the actual effectiveness of the ad, and I’m not sure there’s a way to measure that.
    My husband also points out that a lot of these LED billboards are outfitted with solar panels, as it’s cheaper and easier than running power lines to them, especially in remote areas.

  4. Jordan

    Well, if anyone thinks that Chevron is really out there for any other purpose than to line their exec’s pockets with money, they’re crazy. Chevron’s advertising budget could probably end poverty worldwide.
    This reminds me of a catalog I received in the mail from Macy’s. I received this catalog ONE day after they had sent me a huge stack of postcards advertising holiday dresses. This catalog, announcing Macy’s 150th Anniversary, also came with an unnecessary identical twin catalog for my husband. Each catalog was more than 100 wasteful pages.
    I only opened it to quantify the harm so I could send Macy’s a note about how much I did not appreciate their catalog. Near the end they had the brass to advertise an entire section on “green” clothes, gifts and homewares.
    One more place I won’t be holiday shopping.

  5. Paul

    I think Jordan’s right. And maybe everyone else here is right too, but the bottom line is that Chevron is tooting their own horn in an effort to undo decades of bad policy by a company that cares more about its own bottom line than whether or not an LED billboard or a paper billboard would better convey their self serving message.

  6. Jim

    Sorry Erik, I feel that you sort of rushed out this “Irony” article with below average research and a weak punch line (most of your other articles/commentary are good though!).
    Most of the reader responses are spot-on with their balanced view and insightful comments.
    You came across just wanting to blast Chevron. There are certainly many other and better (more punch) examples of “Irony” in this new evolving greener world (and know at this exact moment I don

  7. Erik Blachford

    Hi All – I appreciate all of your comments, but I’m going to stick with my original take on this. I think there is something deeply ironic about an energy company using a lot of energy to tell us about using less energy. It’s not meant to be fair and balanced journalism, (though I do try to get my facts right); it’s my opinion.
    I do take the point that perhaps the LED billboard is a lower-energy way to tell me about using less energy than old illuminated billboards would be. Perhaps that is how they are using less energy, as they tell us they are. But perhaps the more apt comparison would be – the company could have decided to put their advertising money into research and development for renewable energy, thereby using no energy to tell us about using less energy.
    Look, I think it’s great that Chevron is doing so much to reduce its own energy use, as I think it’s great whenever any company takes on that challenge. And I don’t much care that they’re an oil company, so long as they are responsibly run. I just can’t help seeing the irony in the amount of money and energy they are expending to tell us about how much energy they are saving.

  8. Jamie

    Did your research include
    They’re not just reducing their own energy use, they’re being contracted to execute some of the largest and most exciting renewable energy projects in the world. The reason they have to burn kWh’s to advertise on a billboard is because it’s important to them for people like us to be aware of what they’re up to. Unfortunately, you still seem convinced that they are the enemy … maybe they should advertise on more billboards?
    These guys are pushing the envelope of currently available alternative energy technology and taking a more holistic approach than anyone I’ve seen. They are making a difference and we should be happy about that. Like it or not, it takes a company this size to make the type of progress we truly need.
    Let’s not crucify them for wanting to make money at it either. That’s capitalism. Chevron is the first major energy company I’m aware of to move in the right direction for the future. Furthermore, I think you’d find that the people working in this division of Chevron have more in common with employees of Terrapass than Exxon Mobil.
    I’m in the solar business and regularly eliminate one house worth of kWh. Chevron’s projects make that look like a drop in the bucket.
    If we spread some good words about them, maybe they won’t need to burn as many kWh on advertising.

  9. Joe

    Yes it is ironic that an energy company uses lots of energy to promote using less energy but I believe they DO need to make people aware of what they are doing. Many companies are tooting their own horns and they’ve only just started working on this issues recently. I work for a large pharmaceutical company that has been working on reducing their energy usage for over 25 years and not a lot of people know about it. We have sites worldwide that are using solar, wind, geothermal and other types of alternative energy. We have a corporate program to help affiliates put these types of things in place. We have never advertised that we do it and people don’t know. Now they are asking “What are you doing to help the planet?” So now we’ll start advertising.

  10. Jim

    Well, I must agree Erik that your opinion is your opinion. I therefore will stick to my original reply as well – we need to find more deeply “ironic” examples (as last few entries note, Chevron is trying and hard). I still cringe when I think about the hate stories that came out about the Gore issue (huge C02 footprint) before he addressed it and cut back (still has a ways to go). I hated that I had to defend him and that issue, but I tried my best (because the people spewing about that topic also where the ones blasting global warming). I would love to find high impact irony in a truly anti-global warming talking head or entity.

  11. Carolyn

    I thought I would comment on Jordon’s issue with the Macy’s catalogs for herself and her husband. Register at a stop jumk mail site like Greendimes and stop all of the junk mail. When enough people start registering that they do not want to receive their catalogs then the mass mailiings will stop. I appreciate her frustration that at the back of the catalog was a section on “green items” … but the point here is that you not really need the catalog and can easily stop the mailing. I did it about 18 months ago and every once in awhile I will go back in and up date my info with something that I had forgotten.

  12. Luke

    If you people think Chevron’s doing it’s part to create renewables, you’re silly.
    Read “The Tyranny of Oil.” Chevron spends more in one day on The Cajun Express than it does in an entire year on alternative fuels.
    Their advertising campaign spendings outdo their renewable energy expenditures.