If energy needs to be saved, there are good ways to do it.
                                                               Government product regulation is not one of them

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Squiggly

image  SFGate

It is interesting to compare the light bulb debate in Europe and the United States.

Some might say "What light bulb debate in Europe?", and indeed that is part of the problem.
There was never any real debate in European Society (I looked at several countries), and people did not really know about the ban until it occurred.
Then as now, European politicians and journalists just rehash what they themselves have been told, about the great energy savings and great benefit for the planet ("you do want to do something good for the earth, don't you?"), while allaying fears about lighting choice in that "lookalike incandescent halogens will still be allowed".

The fact that readily available documentation - including official EU documentation - shows not only overall energy savings to be marginal, with much better alternative savings from electricity generation through to consumption, but also that all the most popular frosted halogen replacements would be banned immediately, with the others to follow, was somehow ignored by all mainstream political parties and media.

Of course, that echoes much of what the American government and its supporters are saying.
But at least there is some sort of critical opposition.
Opposition both federally and from individual states.

Since the opposition is mainly from Republicans, one could say that the EU is "one Big Democrat alliance" from an American perspective.
However, my point is not just to praise Republican opposition as such, but also to go beyond light bulbs and see the more electric debating climate in the USA.
Sure, there are downsides too - the partisan divide means that no "self-respecting" Democrat will support a light bulb ban repeal even with overall environmental advantages or obvious better alternatives - simply because that would mean having to side with Republicans (and in fairness no doubt the opposite, on other issues).
But overall, better a heated debate, than no debate.

So in the USA special organisations and websites spring up to hit at "misinformation" - but somehow always misinformation from one side, rather than both.
On light bulbs it's often "Hey it's not a ban, just about making light bulbs more energy efficient".

I was made aware that Politifact were looking at another statement that's been doing the rounds, namely how "the mercury from one dumped CFL can contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water" (or similar).
Seemingly without official reference, it can of course look suspicious. So I checked on it....it comes from Stanford University research. The original research is said not to have "6,000 gallons" - but other figures that mean the same thing.
I did not locate the specific research - there is a lot on Google search of the stanford.edu site even looking for cfl, mercury, water and contaminate, together.
But it is backed by some large news organizations, and credible authors on them. As always, other things turned up too - even old articles are of interest, in showing what was known and what was promised...

(as quoted, MSNBC is owned by lamp manufacturer General Electric - so it is hardly biased against regulations)
A 2008 article by Alex Johnson, has the usual exaggerations about CFL energy savings and lifespan, but interestingly also with a statement by GE (remember this was just after the regulations were announced)....

General Electric Corp., the world’s largest maker of traditional bulbs, said that by 2010, it hoped to have on the market a new high-efficiency incandescent bulb that will be four times as efficient as today’s 125-year-old technology. It said that such bulbs would closely rival fluorescent bulbs for efficiency, with no mercury.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft Corp. and NBC Universal, which is a division of General Electric.)
.... which of course did not happen (ban achieved, job done, bigger profits from expensive CFLs or LEDs assured).
However, the article had more to say, extracts:
One problem hasn’t gone away:
All CFLs contain mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause kidney and brain damage.
The amount is tiny — about 5 milligrams, or barely enough to cover the tip of a pen — but that is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels, extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury.
Even the latest lamps promoted as “low-mercury” can contaminate more than 1,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels.

As long as the mercury is contained in the bulb, CFLs are perfectly safe. But eventually, any bulbs — even CFLs — break or burn out, and most consumers simply throw them out in the trash,
said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and editor of the journal Environmental Research.

This is an enormous amount of mercury that’s going to enter the waste stream at present with no preparation for it,” she said.

“I think there’s going to be hundreds of millions of [CFLs] in landfills all over the country,” said Leonard Worth, head of Fluorecycle Inc. of Ingleside, Ill., a certified facility.
Once in a landfill, bulbs are likely to shatter even if they’re packaged properly, said the Solid Waste Association of North America. From there, mercury can leach into soil and groundwater and its vapors can spread through the air, potentially exposing workers to toxic levels of the poison.

If the disposal problem is to be solved, speed would appear to be called for. Consumers bought more than 300 million CFLs last year, according to industry figures, but they may be simply trading one problem (low energy-efficiency) for another (hazardous materials by the millions of pounds going right into the earth).
“One lamp, so what? Ten lamps, so what? A million lamps, well that’s something,” said Worth of Fluorecycle.
“A hundred million lamps? Now, that’s a whole different ballgame.”

.... and not only are there are around 5 billion lighting points in American households (average 45 lights per household on Energy Star and EIA information, census estimate US households in 2010: 114,825,428), but LED lights also apparently have some toxic content and disposal issues (http://ceolas.net/#li20ledax)

The "1 CFL contaminates 6,000 gallons of water" is also corroborated from other sources in 2011.

For example Fox News - well known to usually favor Republican views, but an article by an outside contributor, Deirdre Imus, Founder and President of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at Hackensack University Medical Center would not seem overly biased, and reiterates that and other issues with CFLs.

Again, a Minnesota Examiner article by Erin Haust also puts the issue in a more overall context, edited extracts:

Manufacturing CFL bulbs requires exceptional manual labor versus the machine-based production of typical bulbs. The bulbs are made in large part by hand which can be extremely expensive, thus manufacturers are turning to the cheap labor market overseas, namely China.
GE employees in Virginia learned this truth first-hand. More than 200 workers lost their jobs last fall when GE closed its doors...
American made CFLs would have cost about 50% more than those made in China, which currently manufactures more CFLs than any other country.
All 200 jobs once held in Virginia will be replaced by overseas workers.

The amount of mercury in a regular CFL bulb is less than 5 milligrams, about what it would take to cover the tip of a ball point pen. Though minuscule in size, mercury is a highly dangerous substance and just 5 milligrams can contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels. Newer, more expensive, low-level mercury CFL's still have enough mercury in them to contaminate 1,000 gallons of water.

Record players, VCR's, cassette tapes, and countless other household items have come and gone, been invented and improved, without the "help" of regulation and laws mandating use...

Are fluorescent light bulbs so bad then?

All lighting types have advantages.
Fluorescent lighting, while having light quality issues, do have a whiter color temperature than regular incandescents, and fluorescent tubes are seen as advantageous in kitchens for example.
They save energy in their usage, albeit not as much as supposed, as covered in the
"deception behind banning bulbs" section.

However - again, like all lighting - they have their disadvantages.
CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) - and LEDs - have light quality issues due to their spiky emission spectra, which filters can smooth out but not entirely correct, while incandescents have smoother spectra.
But CFL issues, then, go beyond light quality issues and into questions regarding their health and environmental safety:
Not just related to mercury, but also to a fire risk (less predictable than from incandescent heat), radiation and light sensitivity issues, all as covered here.

On the "mercury scare",
there is a lot of counter-argumentation, mainly centered on 2 issues
"Hey, incandescent related coal power mercury emissions are worse!"
"Hey, tuna fish, thermometers, dental fillings (etc) are a lot more dangerous for their mercury content!"

As mentioned before, 2 wrongs obviously don't make a right.
If and where there is a problem - deal with the problem.
CFL mercury is a problem - regardless of the other dangers, and the "coal emission" argument does not hold up given the extent of mercury emission reduction that is taking place under US EPA mandates, and similarly in the EU after recent worldwide reduction agreement under UN auspices (which excepted CFLs, one might note).
The "incandescent related coal emissions are worse" argument never held anyway, for the many reasons linked below.

A complete rundown of the CFL mercury issue on http://ceolas.net/#li19x
[Breakage -- Recycling -- Dumping -- Mining -- Manufacturing -- Transport -- Power Plants]

CFL breakage and disposal guidelines are often enough quoted in media, as with the articles above.
EPA's guidelines regarding CFL breakage and disposal remain onerous, as can also be seen from their special document from last year.

"But we are not forcing anyone to use CFLs!"

This is another usual retort.
Certainly there are some exempted lamp categories (see regulation specifications).
However, the whole point of the regulations is to save energy, and exempted bulbs are all of course unusual bulbs - if certain categories have rising sales, the legislation ensures that they are banned too.
The availability of LEDs, and of incandescent replacements (like halogens), is also highlighted by ban proponents.
However, LEDs are not suitable for omnidirectional bright lighting, quite apart from their light quality and other differences to simple regular bulbs.
Halogens also have light quality differences, and cost much more for marginal savings, so are not popular with either politicians or consumers. Besides, they will also effectively be banned on the ever more stringent standards that apply - and are not usually mentioned - in both the USA and the EU.

One also has to be clear about the industrial politics behind the regulations. Manufacturers want to sell expensive profit-making bulbs (which never last as long as supposed, "planned obsolescence"). That is why they sought and welcomed the ban.
This is no conspiratorial conjecture, it is well documented on the website.
That is also why the idea of "incandescent development" does not wash, why pre-ban promised further incandescent development (as by Philips with eco-savers in Europe, and as seen above, by GE in USA) never materialised post-ban.
That is also why, in post-ban Europe, even existing halogens are hard to get, the big main store push being for people "to buy energy saving bulbs" (note the name: energy saving bulb, not the less nice sounding fluorescent bulb - and as if one would ask for "an energy wasting bulb please" buying a regular simple incandescent).

Sometimes the call goes out that "CFLs should be banned instead", given all their health and environment issues.

However, for all that is said here, the dangers are probably exaggerated, and EPA guidelines surely have an element of being overly cautious also for legal reasons.

All lighting has advantages.
The incandescent ban is not wrong just because there are issues with CFLs.
The incandescent ban is wrong in itself - just like a ban on CFLs would be, unless proven unsafe.

Light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gas.
Power plants might.
Overall energy savings from a switchover are small, a fraction of 1% of overall energy use in the USA as in Europe, on official data, and with much more relevant energy efficiency savings in electricity generation, grid distribution, and alternative consumption, as described.

If there is a problem - deal with the problem.


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