Busting Light Bulbs

One of Los Angeles’ most consequential environmental organizations over the past 25 years is Heal the Bay. It’s because of Heal the BayLight Bulbs.jpg and its allies that Los Angeles’ coastal waters today are significantly cleaner than they have been in, perhaps, a century.

The pressure the organization could apply was due, in part, to the simple elegance of the organization’s name. Founder Dorothy Green was a communications genius, and that sort of genius sometimes makes a difference. Polluted runoff and under-treated sewage was making the Santa Monica Bay sick. But if you joined up with Dorothy Green, you could help heal it. Who could oppose that?

Dr. Matt Prescott could be Dorothy Green’s heir. The organizer of the Oxford Earth Summit, this Britisher founded Ban the Bulb, which has a simple, elegant mission to, you guessed it, ban all conventional incandescent lightbulbs by a date certain, and replace them with compact-flourescents. In an essay on the BBC’s website, Prescott says,

One quick and simple option for improving energy efficiency would be to make greater use of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Each one of these bulbs produces the same amount of light as an incandescent light bulb whilst being responsible for the emission of 70% less carbon dioxide.

It also saves money; about £7 ($12) per year in the UK, more or less in other countries depending on electricity prices.

So why not just ban incandescent bulbs – why not make them illegal?

They waste so much energy that if they were invented today, it is highly unlikely they would be allowed onto the market.

Nobody would suffer; every energy-saving bulb would save money and help to curb climate change.

It is truly a win-win solution.

compact flourescent bulbs.jpgAlthough compact flourescent bulbs save money long-term, at the point of purchase, they are more expensive, as Prescott admits. Prescott thus concludes, “many seem to feel they are entitled to pollute the Earth’s atmosphere without worrying about the consequences.”

If we cannot deny ourselves incandescent light bulbs, which would require minimal sacrifice, how are we ever going to do the really difficult things such as cutting our reliance on fossil fuels, buying smaller cars or reducing our use of finite natural resources?

Pow! This kind of “we have met the enemy and he is us” rhetoric has long gone out of style in American environmental discourse. Shame is, like, too judgemental, dude.

American green groups apparently figured out they can raise more money blaming Dick Cheney for everything. We’ve allowed Arianna Huffington and assorted celebrities with fat wallets to take point on controversial issues, leaving them and the environmental movement open to charges of hypocrisy when their foes find out how many miles Huffington logs on private planes, how much Barbra Streisand pays to air-condition her homes or what a NIMBY Robert Kennedy, Jr. is about a wind energy project on his yachting route.

Anyway –to get off that soapbox and back onto Prescott’s — his idea is that nuclear power and coal production enjoy massive subsidies, and that a fraction of those funds could be directed to offset some of the cost of buying the new bulbs.

It must have been 15 years ago when utilities in Southern California began giving away compact-flourescents. Maybe giveaways weren’t such a great strategy. They conditioned the public to think that using such bulbs was a government program that government was responsible for. If the bulbs weren’t supplied free of charge every time you needed one, it was a signal the program no longer mattered.

Plus, electric utilities have conflicting incentives on efficiency issues. As long as they can get the power, they’d prefer to sell it than conserve it. They’re happy to help you conserve energy in one part of your house, but they’d prefer you shifted your energy consumption to other products. Utilities, both public and private, run on a lot of borrowed money, and they need cash to keep the bondholders comfortable.

Considering all these different factors, I have to say, I think Prescott is onto something. If cheaper bulbs remain available, people will buy them, because the cost in higher utility bills is not sufficiently visible. Taking them off the shelves is what’s needed.

Instead of giving the more expensive compact flourescents away to everybody, one time, as a green-on-my-sleeve PR gesture, utilities could commit to a plan to supply them with regularity to low-income households.

Replacing just three bulbs that burn five hours a day would — according to a study Prescott sites — reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of 11 coal-fired power stations, save $1.8 billion, and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 23 million tons.

P.S. Here’s something celebrities can do. To make films, you need light. Anything on a stage needs light. Will compact flourescents work for entertainment-related illumination needs? Celebrities should demand it.

(Thanks to documentary filmmaker Todd Mason for the tip.)

Update 2/9/06:  I’ve been set straight on movie lighting. After accusing me of goading the “America-hating-Hollywood crowd (into) putting their mouth where their butt is, or something,” which I swear I wasn’t doing, at least not consciously (although I admit I was very tired when I first wrote the post, so it’s possible that a form of automatic writing took over), Todd provided this helpful explanation:

(S)tudio lighting requires the full range of light spectrum that only incandescent light offers. Otherwise, all your favorite movies and TV shows would look like green-tinted, pirated, low resolution crap (flourescent is heavy on the green which is the worst color for film or video light).

After that painful woodshedding, I will now move on to another target for excessive use of energy for lighting.

5 thoughts on “Busting Light Bulbs

  1. This is terrifying. I personally do NOT want compact flourescents lighting my house. They’re fine for the porchlights, but I don’t want my home lit with the same harsh, cold lighting that you find in an office. Sounds trivial, I’m sure, to a greenie/communist, but it’s just the point of having yet another personal freedom stripped away by the nanny state. I prefer halogens, actually. They are more efficient than regular incandescent, as they put out more lumens per watt, provide whiter, fuller-spectrum light, and last longer than regular incandescent bulbs.

    The terrifying part comes as yet another assault on our personal freedoms. They want to tell you what lightbulbs you must buy. What personal choice will they take away next? All in the name of “save the enviroment” or “for the children.”

  2. Do you anyone who suffers from Migraine headaches? The near invisible flicker in flourecent lights is a migraine trigger. My fiance has them and we’ll end up going way backwards and using candles rather than dealing with the headaches flourescents would cause her.

  3. Pingback: What’s So Funny ‘Bout Lightbulbs and Global Warming…? « From the Desert to the Sea…

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