If you're like me, you've changed all the light bulbs in your house to compact fluorescents in order to conserve electricity. Recently though, I came downstairs to our family office and much to my immediate horror, I found my wife working (she works in a home office) with a desk lamp, with (gasp) an old fashioned incandescent bulb.
Immediately I drove to the local supermarket - I could have walked, since unlike Amory Lovins, I live in a walkable community, but damn it was cold - to buy a CFL to put in my wife's lamp. I have measured the gas mileage on the car I used - a 1996 Honda Civic - at 33 mpg, meaning that the round trip of about 1 mile, using a rough approximation of 8 kg of carbon dioxide released for each gallon of the dangerous fossil fuel product gasoline that is burned, injected 250 grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste, carbon dioxide, into earth's atmosphere to get the lightbulb. But, of course, were I a good conservationist, I would have thought things out so that I had combined trips in such a way that I not only got a lifetime supply of CFL's, but a two month supply of bananas and tomatoes as well. So it would be silly to argue that the car trip has anything at all to do with the carbon output of CFL bulbs.
For cars, the greenhouse gas cost is not limited to the fuel, of course. The manufacture of the car incurred a greenhouse cost as well. But since the car is more than 10 years old, we may consider this cost amortized, which brings me to an important enviromental point: An environmentalist is not a person who insists on "all new stuff," everytime something new and sexy comes along. An environmentalist tries to make the existing stuff, especially when one considers durable goods, last as long as possible. No matter how much money we have, we have no intention of buying a cool new Prius.
I've been using CFL bulbs since the days they cost close to ten bucks each. In fact, I've been using them so long, that I have managed to burn a few of them out - they do last a long time - presenting myself with a moral problem of how to throw them away, since I know they contain mercury.
I called my township to find out if we had a flourescent recycling program. I could hear the clerk rolling her eyes over the phone. "No," she said, "we recommend you put the light bulbs in the regular trash." That's what I did. I hope the trash collecter didn't break the bulb, and if he did, I hope I didn't track mercury home to his kids.
Having bought a number of CFL bulbs, I have to say, this one is the best yet. Frankly, they get better and better, more compact and - subjectively at least - much better at putting out intense light. This particular bulb which was said to be the equivalent of a "100 watt" bulb (incandescent) cost me, with tax, close to 4 bucks, but everybody in town knows that the particular supermarket where I bought my bulb rapes you on things like light bulbs, although occassionally they have a competitive price on bananas and tomatoes. You can get much cheaper CFL bulbs if you drive your fat ass car to Home Depot. Where I live, Home Depot is about 5 kg of dangerous fossil fuel waste away (round trip, 1996 Honda Civic based dangerous fossil fuel waste calculation).
(As it happens, we still happen to have a local hardware store to which one can walk in this town, but damned if anyone can tell how it stays in business, even though I have calculated that one will actually save money by paying the walkable guy an extra three bucks for a screwdriver.)
According to the manufacturer, the light bulb consumes "only" 25 watts even though it's "100 watt-like." This is a convenient number in my imagination, because I recently calculated that is the average power consumed by the average Cambodian for all purposes, cooking, eating, flushing the toilet and keeping up with the latest episode of "Oprah" is about 25 watts.
Anyway. I put the light bulb in the lamp, feeling perfectly well satisfied that my wife would be perfectly well satisfied with how "environmental" I am when she saw it.
My wife, who has lived through the agony of seeing me try to figure out the ethical way of trying to discard a light bulb, had this to say when she saw her new light bulb: "What happened to my light bulb?"
If you are tired of hearing my tiresome lectures on climate change, consider that it could be worse. You could have married it.
After (patiently hearing me out) my wife protested, "But it keeps me warm!"
The central heating unit in my house is a high efficiency furnace fueled by the dangerous fossil fuel natural gas. When I moved in, I was determined to be very "environmental" in my house and one of the ways I satisfied myself on that score was by buying a new high efficiency furnace. (The car culture suburb in which I live is walkable, but not exceptionally so.) The guy who sold the furnance to me, who turned out at the end of the day to be a Christian fundie - as opposed to an anti-nuke fundie - told me that the new furnace was 93% efficient.
Now, as it happens, the fundie heating guy was kind of scummy about business ethics. My "extended" warranty didn't include in writing the clause about huddling around the fireplace for 5 days when he found the time to honor it (and it could be honored only if I happened to have the receipt handy). Two years after exercising that unwritten clause about the 5 days huddled around the fireplace, he had the nerve to call to tell me that my warranty depended on him giving me a "discount" service call - which I declined, having already recognized that the warranty was worthless. (I have a contract now with my dangerous fossil fuel company, and they fix your furnace right away if there's a problem.)
But for the other part of his salesmanship, the part about the "efficiency," of my furnace, though, I believe it. Irrespective of the other stuff the fundie furnace saleman/installer did or didn't do, he didn't make the furnace. The furnace was made by Trane, which manufactured the heater, I think, right near here in Trenton, New Jersey. (That will stop soon though. Trane was just sold to Ingersoll Rand. Hello Chinese manufacturing plant.) At the time I had a furnace that used the dangerous fossil fuel oil - and after installation of the new gas furnace, my heating bills were cut by more than half.
Another reason I believe that the furnace is 93% efficient is that there is a little water pump attached to the furnace, and if it fails - as it has - my crawlspace begins to fill with water. This is because when you burn the dangerous fossil fuel natural gas, there are several products, the famous dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide (as well as tiny amounts of carbon monoxide, methanol, formaldehyde and formic acid) and water. If the latter, water is transformed from the gas phase in which it forms to a liquid, this means that the exhaust has pretty much reached room temperature, and thus the furnace is efficient.
However efficient the furnace is, for structural reasons involving the duct work and the physical layout of my split level house, the furnace isn't very good at heating our downstairs office space. I think to solve the problem we'd need all new duct work and a bunch of other stuff, including insulation. Where I live, from a risk perspective, it's sort of a mixed bag, insulation, at least in that particular space, the lowest level in our home. All of western New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvannia sits on a geological formation called the "Reading Pronge." The Reading Pronge is a huge natural uranium formation deep underground. Many underground wells around here are thus contaminated with radon gas, and so are many basements, including, at times, mine.
Radon gas is the third largest cause of lung cancer in the world, after smoking (#1) and the form of dangerous fossil fuel waste represented by particulate matter (#2). From 80 to 90% of the cases of lung cancer are attributable to smoking, and dangerous fossil fuel waste causes the bulk of the remainder, but a small fraction is known to be the result of radon accumulation in basements. By the way, the dangerous fossil fuel waste that causes most of the lung cancer that is not caused by smoking is not carbon dioxide, even though carbon dioxide represents the bulk, in mass, of dangerous fossil fuel waste. The dangerous fossil fuel waste that causes cancer is the dangerous particulate matter generally formed by diesel engines and dangerous coal combustion. Dangerous coal combustion causes oodles of particulate pollution about which they couldn't care less in the anti-nuke fundementalist religion.
Anyway, about our light bulb.
We solve the problem of the cold office by heating the office electrically, but my wife doesn't like to run the electric heater too long, because, she says, it's expensive. The lightbulb, she says, takes the edge off the cold and otherwise she makes like Jimmy Carter and dresses warmly in the downstairs office.
The decomposition of radon gas in our basement does not provide significant heat by the way.
My wife's attachment to the heat from the lightbulb got me to thinking about the matter of efficiency, and it immediately occurred to me that inefficient electric appliances running in cold rooms requiring heaters - in the Northern Hemisphere in most places from October until April - might not actually lose energy. So called "wasted" energy is only waste when it is not used. Arguably, for six months roughly, the lightbulb is merely an electric heater. Since there is a larger electric heater in the room, there is no environmental or financial penalty for using the incandescent lamp as opposed to a compact flourescent.
But suppose that the basement were efficiently heated by natural gas? Would the light bulb still be better than the dangerous fossil fueled furnace?
New Jersey generates more than half of its electricity using the world's largest, by far, form of greenhouse gas free energy, nuclear power. Thus, I reasoned, electric heaters, including light bulbs when they are indoors - and by the way my CFL is not perfectly efficient - when I touch it, it is hot, and it is, therefore, also something of an electric heater - might actually be better for the environment than efficient gas furnaces. But was I right about this? After all, my furnace is high efficiency and, in fact, I am aware that New Jersey burns two dangerous fossil fuels, natural gas and a little coal, to generate electricity. I know something - I think about it all the time in fact - about whence my electricity comes. And no, the answer is not "the wall socket." What about electricity comes from the burning of dangerous fossil fuels and the indiscriminate dumping of dangerous fossil fuel waste into the air and water and unto the land.
I decided to do some calculations.
First let's look at the electricity profile of New Jersey:
We see as of 2006, New Jersey generated 53.7% of its electricity using nuclear power, 25.8% of its electricity using the same dangerous fossil fuel that fuels my furnace, 17.9% of its electricity using the filthy fuel coal, and 1.5% of its electricity using "other renewables." In EIA talk, "other renewables" includes wind, solar, biomass burning and municipal waste burning.
Without a doubt, the municipal waste portion is a huge portion of "other renewables" in New Jersey - even though a large portion of municpal waste in fact comes from petroleum in the form of waste plastic - but for the rest of this calculation I am going to pretend that "other renewables" comes from wind power, for argument's sake. Therefore I'm going to make almost like a Greenpeace fundie and pretend that the external cost of renewables is next to non-existent.
The figures I am going to use for the carbon dioxide impact of electrical energy will come from Environ. Sci. Technol. 2005, 39, 1903-1911, an article by Paul Denholm, wind advocate, and references therein. I will assume that the external cost represented by greenhouse gases is represented by the upper limits given by Denholm. Thus I will indicate that coal releases 1100 grams of dangerous carbon dioxide per kw-hr of energy produced and that natural gas releases 500 grams of dangerous fossil fuel per kw-hr of energy. (Note that Denholm assumes that 100% of the natural gas plants are combined cycle plants - not justifiable really, but let's go with it for argument's sake.) Denholm assigns to nuclear power (again upper limit) an external carbon dioxide cost of 25 grams per kw-hr. This is equivalent to the cost he assigns to wind power, also 25 grams per kw-hr without energy storage. With the energy storage that would truly make wind a competitor of wind, CAES, the external carbon dioxide cost as calculated by Denholm is 4 times larger than nuclear, or 100 grams of dangerous carbon dioxide per kw-hr of energy produced.
Now let's look at New Jersey's electricity and the incandescent lightbulb/heater and how it compares to the dangerous natural gas furnace.
If 17.9% of New Jersey's electricity is obtained from the dangerous fossil fuel coal, then the weighted carbon dioxide cost of coal generated electricity per kw-hr of electricity in New Jersey can be shown to be 196 grams, at 1100 grams/kwh for coal, of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide.
If 25.8% of New Jersey's electricity comes from plants fueled by dangerous natural gas, then the weighted carbon dioxide impact of a kw-hr of electricity, at 500 grams per kw-hr, in New Jersey is 129 grams of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide.
If nuclear power produces 53.7% of the electricity in New Jersey - and it will continue to do so until nuclear infrastructure is destroyed by dopey fundie anti-nukes with defective educations - the weighted carbon dioxide impact of nuclear energy accounts, at 25 grams per kw-hr of electrical energy, for 13 grams of the dangerous fossil fuel waste, carbon dioxide per kw-hr.
Finally, if we assume that all of the "other renewables" in New Jersey are wind plants - they're not, but let's play pretend - then if "other renewables" portion of the electrical energy in New Jersey at 1.5% and 25 grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste per kw-hr, "other renewables" in New Jersey represent 0.38 grams of carbon dioxide.
Let's turn to the light bulb.
Summing these figures, we see that in New Jersey, the carbon dioxide impact of electricity is about 340 grams of dangerous carbon dioxide per kw-hr. Since a kw-hr is 3,600,000 Joules, and a 100 watt light bulb running over a workshift of 10 hours burns exactly a kw-hr, it follows that the incandescent light bulb is responsible for the release of 340 grams of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide.
A CFL light bulb that actually uses 25 watts of power to produce as much light - and let's not bother with the somewhat problematic issue of lumens and the "perceptual" intensity at light at 555 nm - would release in New Jersey about 85 grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste in 10 hours.
Now let's turn to the dangerous fossil fuel fueled furnace in my house.
We see that each TJ of dangerous natural gas contains 14.4 metric tons of carbon. Thus, it is easy to show that 1 kwh of thermal energy contained in the dangerous fossil fuel furnace in my house, at 93% thermal efficiency, contains about 55.7 grams of carbon. The molecular weight of carbon dioxide is roughly 44, and the atomic weight of carbon is 12 roughly. Thus it follows that the release of carbon dioxide by the furnace to produce an amount of energy equivalent to the light bulb is about 205 grams, carrying one insignificant figure. Since the incandescent lightbulb "wastes" 3/4 of its energy as heat, compared to the CFL, the heat from the light bulb costs, in carbon dioxide terms, 255 grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste.
Thus the savings to the environment - in New Jersey for the owner of a high efficiency furnace - is about 50 grams of carbon dioxide over a ten hour period. Thus, it takes about 50 hours of light bulb operation in winter, for the owner of a high efficiency gas furnace, to recover the cost of driving one mile to buy the bulb at the local supermarket. If one drives the same distance that I have to drive to get the light bulb at Home Depot, it takes 1000 hours of winter operation to recover the greenhouse gas loss.
Now let's consider Vermont, where 72 percent of the power comes from nuclear energy - the efforts of dumb fundie anti-nukes to destroy the nuclear infrastructure there notwithstanding - 21% comes from hydropower and 6% comes from "other renewables."
The matter of how much greenhouse gas hydroelectricity produces is somewhat controversial - an anti-hydro group contends that it is as dangerous as dangerous natural gas in Brazil. But I don't think that what applies in Brazil necessarily applies in Vermont. It is hardly surprising that the greenhouse gas cost of dams in Syria are different than the greenhouse gas cost of dams in India, different than the greenhouse gas cost of a high alpine hydroelectric station in Italy. In any case, once the organic matter under the dam - be it pristine rain forest or the wood in inundated towns - has rotted, the rate of release of greenhouse gases changes.
Out of respect for the more than 200,000 dead at Banqiao, we'll pretend that Chinese dams don't exist, much as fundamentalist anti-nukes, who couldn't care less about the subject anyway, pretend that coal doesn't exist.
For the purposes of calculation, we'll assume that in Vermont, the greenhouse gas cost of hydroelectric dams is at least as good as nuclear power. If, in fact, it is better than nuclear in Vermont it will have no effect on determining the effect on the relative benefits of electrical conservation in Vermont - it will serve only to make electricity an even better form of heating. If it is worse, it actually won't matter. Unless they are either demolished or unless they collapse, the greenhouse gas cost of dams is constant. It matters not a whit if the turbines are running or not in general.
Thus let's assume that the greenhouse gas cost of Vermont dams is 25 grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste, carbon dioxide, per kwh.
Six percent of Vermont's electricity comes from "other renewables" and I will play pretend and assume that this form of energy is all wind power and thus is at least as good as nuclear: Twenty-five grams of dangerous fossil fuel waste per kw-hr.
Doing a weighted average as before, as I did with New Jersey, we see that the carbon dioxide cost of running a kwh of electricity in Vermont has a greenhouse gas cost of about 25 grams, and thus the portion of "waste" heat from a lightbulb is 18 grams of carbon dioxide. This means that in Vermont, even if one has a high efficiency dangerous gas heater like mine, the greenhouse gas cost of replacing a light bulb with a CFL is higher than having an incandescent.
It is very, very, very, very important to note that this calculation applies only in winter when the heater is operating. An incandescent light bulb running where air conditioning is also operating is ridiculous and wasteful.
Of course, dopey anti-nuke fundies are running around trying to destroy Vermont's nuclear infrastructure, so it may not prove true that the electricity in Vermont will remain clean and safe for very much longer, but for now, the reality is what it is.
I would like to return to the situation in New Jersey for a minute. Of the three largest sources of primary energy for electrical generation in New Jersey, the smallest of them, coal, generates the bulk of the dangerous fossil fuel waste.
By contrast, the largest form of primary energy for electrical generation in New Jersey, nuclear energy, generates the least dangerous fossil fuel waste.
Note that in calculating the dangerous fossil fuel waste generated by my car when I went to buy the CFL bulb at the local supermarket, I did not count any dangerous fossil fuel waste generated by the manufacture of the car. There is justification for this: The car is more than 10 years old. Since the car's external costs from manufacture are more than a decade old, it is fair to say that the external cost from manufacture is fully amortized, since the manufacturing related dangerous fossil fuel waste generated can no longer be recovered. (On the other hand, the maintenance external cost is significant and it is not justifiable to ignore it.) The situation would be very different if I ordered a new car. Of course the new car might be sexy - a Prius is considered sexy by some - but the external cost of manufacturing would be an additional strain on the environment.
This brings up an important point: In many cases, the "all new stuff" conceit that floats around in many circles is less environmental than advertised. In general, it is environmentally wise to use stuff for as long as possible, discarding it only when it is completely worthless. A new car is not sexy, no matter what they tell you in the ridiculous car ads that permeate the ridiculous car culture.
Ridiculous anti-nuke fundies are trying to destroy one of the nation's oldest nuclear plants, the Oyster Creek reactor, because they cannot think clearly. In fact, almost all of the external cost in carbon dioxide terms associated with that reactor come from its construction, which was finished in 1969. The reactor functions perfectly well and if it is shut by anti-nuke fundies, it will be replaced for certain by dangerous fossil fuel plants, just as every single nuclear plant that has been shut around the world by public ignorance has been so replaced.
(With these facts in mind, I regard the entire class of anti-nuke fundies who are trying to destroy my state's nuclear infrastructure as people who are attempting to do physical damage to my children. As such, I hold them in contempt.)
My state is a coastal state. This means that we have access to cooling water that is not dependent on river flows, such flows being under threat everywhere on the planet as the environment collapses. This makes New Jersey an ideal place to build new nuclear reactors. I personally would have no objection whatsoever if one were literally built effectively in my back yard, although as it happens, I live close to a river and not close to the coast.
My electrical service area is the PJM interconnect which services New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware. As of today the minimum power - the baseload as seen in the graph - in early January is about 75,000 megawatts, which would represent the output of about 50 nuclear plants - and thus eliminating all the coal burned in New Jersey - and the bulk of its dangerous fossil fuel waste, striking almost 200 grams of carbon dioxide from each kw-hr generated. Note: Coal is a minor contributor to New Jersey's electrical generation.
Now, people are always marching around making grand announcements about what they think renewable energy will do someday. Despite decades of such talk, after billions of loudly stated promises, the renewable energy business - at least when it comes to stopping dangerous fossil fuels - has been a rather grotesque failure. That said, no one, with the possible exception of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, is trying to stop the renewables advocates from taking a crack at the 129 grams of dangerous natural gas generated dangerous fossil fuel waste that shows up per kwh of electricty in New Jersey. Because of the grotesque failure of renewable energy to stop climate change, not only in New Jersey, but everywhere, history would seem to suggest though that an accumulation of solar roofs and windmills - never mind garbage incinerators - cannot be built as fast as 50 nuclear reactors.
How do we know? Well for one thing, people have been talking up renewable energy for more than 50 years now and - as if the world had not just spent most of literate history relying on renewable energy - the amount of continuous average power from "renewable" electrical plants is the equivalent of 42 large (1000MWe) power plants. Note that's all of the world's biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and trash burning plants combined. If we consider that this talk has been going on for 50 years, and that on average, it has amounted to the equivalent of less than one large power plant - worldwide - per year, we know exactly how slow the "renewables will save us" game is.
Still I am in favor, pretty much, of every renewable energy installation added to New Jersey. The number of renewable energy installations in New Jersey is zero. That doesn't mean much, since renewable energy in New Jersey doesn't mean much - it could all disappear and no one would notice - but it is, nonetheless, true.
It would be great for New Jersey, if we - with our coast lines - could have 20 of those reactors, helping our inland neighbors out, creating local jobs and tax ratables, using our excellent rail networks for construction materials movement and, if the public should be struck with a sudden stroke of rationality - not a good bet admittedly - a few plants nuclear plants in our denser cities, Newark, Camden, Elizabeth, Trenton (near where I live). Powerplants located in cities offer the potential that waste heat could be used for district heating in winter. In fact, Trenton already has a district heating infrastructure.
Although, overall, these cities are poor now, but the influx of money could serve to revive them - cheap heat, cheap electricity, excellent rail connections, etc, etc. I cannot help but to think that industries - such as remain in America - and other businesses - will be drawn in because in a time of fossil fuel collapse and climate change, access to things like cheap energy, mass transit and district heat is likely to be a huge advantage.
But that's just a fantasy about what could have been had ignorance not won. But ignorance has won.
Realistically such an outcome is now extremely unlikely, if not impossible, and in any case, climate change has already occurred on a catastrophic scale and it's about to get worse. This climate change business is more or less over, except for the dying.
In any case, there is good reason to suspect that even if we lived in darkness - it wouldn't make much difference. As it happens, lighting only consumes about 8% of US electricity.
This means that even if we chose to live in darkness, as opposed to buying all new CFL bulbs, there are real limits to what we can achieve.
After I began writing this useless diary and had completed the calculations for it, I had occassion to go the library for something. Although as I write tonight we are having an outbreak of summer like weather - in January - on the night in question it was bitter cold.
What a remarkable thing it was, to think that to account for 2 minutes of driving, I would need to run an efficient lightbulb for 50 hours - should I choose the lightbulb in winter.
It's bizarre really.
Thinking of my calculation, I decided to walk to the library. The night was clear and, although the milky way was - as always invisible - obscured by car culture, coal, and wood pollutants, as well as the inevitable light pollution, most unlike the night the lights went out. (cf: GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 31, L13106-L13110, 2004)
My ears were freezing, and I pulled up my hood, watching my breath condense before my face. You know, I used to drive to airports, hop on planes and buy lift tickets just to marvel at doing such a simple thing as that, feeling my ears growing cold. And here I was, getting exactly the same feeling without causing any injury, without spending a dime.
It may have been the most beautiful moment of the week.