Thursday, February 22, 2007

Much Ado About Lighting

The Australian government has apparently decided to start phasing out incandescent light bulbs by 2010, a move California is also apparently considering. This is big news for many reasons, including the fact that it's occurring because of concerns about climate change in a country that hasn't ratified the Kyoto Protocol. I'm a bit surprised, because I always think of "Oz" as the land of rugged individualists. Even here in the US, switching to compact fluorescent lights (CF) that are interchangeable with standard incandescent bulbs has rapidly become a motherhood and apple pie notion. Nevertheless, I'm not sure it's worth all the fuss. In the hierarchy of things we can do to save the planet, residential CF lighting falls pretty far down the list to force it on people. It's a nice thing to encourage, but is mandating it worth the resentment and pushback this could create for more important measures to address climate change?

Here are the numbers: In 2001 residences used 30% of total US electricity generation, and lighting accounted for under 9% of residential consumption. So even if we converted all existing incandescent light bulbs in homes to CFs--ignoring those that have already been switched in the last five years--at an indicated energy savings of 66%, we're talking about a theoretical maximum of 1.8% of our electricity consumption, equating to less than 1% of our total carbon dioxide emissions. That's not insignificant, but there are good reasons why the real-world savings are likely to fall well short of that maximum.

First, unless we mandate it as Australia has, not everyone will switch to CFs, for reasons including aesthetics, cost and convenience. I also wouldn't be surprised to see a version of a phenomenon that has been reported in Europe, where owners of thriftier diesel cars are apparently driving more kilometers, because the cost per km is much lower than for gasoline. As a case in point, I'm fanatical about turning off lights in unoccupied rooms. But I'm a little less likely to take a few extra steps to turn off the CF lights, because I know they aren't costing much to run, and they have that annoying delay when you turn them back on. And as with cars and fuel consumption, what counts most here is not the lower wattage but the actual kilowatt-hours saved. In other words, if a CF bulb is 2/3 more efficient, but I use it twice as much as the incandescent it replaced, the net savings are only half as big, and the payback twice as long.

My other concern is the risk of the government selecting an inferior technology and making it a standard. Based on my scanning of the science and technology media, it's apparent that we are on the verge of a major revolution in lighting. Compact fluorescents are only the tip of the iceberg, with silicon-based LEDs, organic LEDs and other technologies coming on fast, some without CF's drawbacks of start-up lag and harsh light. Superficially, this is similar to the competition between hybrid car models that are available today versus plug-in hybrids that are some years off. The difference is that the incandescent light "fleet" turns over every year or so, the cost of waiting for a better technology is low, and this creates lots of future options. Once most of these bulbs switch over to CFs, however, with their much longer turnover times, the next lighting technology will face tougher hurdles, and consumers will have a bigger investment at stake.

None of this means I'm against CF lighting as a green choice. Businesses are choosing it in droves, driven by economics, and this is a big component of the thriving energy services business, making hotels, offices and other public and commercial spaces more energy efficient. That's happening because there's money to be made. Consumers are doing the same thing, when it makes sense. Meanwhile, it will be interesting watching Australia make this switch. Having known more than a few Aussies, I wouldn't be surprised if a black market in imported incandescent lights sprang up, in response.

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