Howard’s blog

CFLs: A Building Block for Global Warming Solutions

The naysayers keep arguing that reducing global warming pollution is too expensive, too hard, will cost too much money and will irreparably harm our economy. We’ve heard this refrain before. Seat belts supposedly will dramatically increase the costs of cars, make no safety difference and Americans won’t use them. Catalytic converters supposedly won’t really reduce pollution and will make cars unaffordable. Reducing sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain supposedly will cost electric utilities $2,000 – $3,000 per ton, cause electric rates to skyrocket and not help the environment very much.

Well, look what happened: Seat belts are an incidental car cost component, have saved many, many, many lives, and all of us have gotten used to snapping on our seat belts because it’s sensible, as well as legally required. Catalytic converters have, indeed, reduced a lot of air pollution from cars, and there aren’t many complaints today. Both have avoided added health costs and insurance costs.

The federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which set up the cap-and-trade program to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution from coal plants, triggered a wave of technological advances, as well as simple at-the-coal-plant engineering tweaks and fixes, that have reduced acid rain, leading to demonstrable environmental improvements in our rivers, lakes and forests, as well as less public health harms. Sulfur dioxide pollution credits are trading today around $150 per ton, instead of the utilities’ inflated arguments that they would cost 15-20 times more. (Yes, Indiana would be better off if more utilities had installed scrubbers on their coal plants, rather than switching to lower-sulfur western coal.)

So when you hear that economic disaster will somehow befall the United States if we step up and act to help solve our global warming problems, think about the facts, the above history, and Americans’ capacity for technological innovation, especially when given the right mix of regulatory and financial market incentives.

No, it won’t be easy. And, it won’t always be cheap, and it may be painful for some of the more polluting industries and their workers. But it won’t always be difficult and costly. Let’s look at one good example.

The Indianapolis Zoo is right on target with its My Carbon Pledge goal of engaging people to “change one million incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in the state of Indiana in 2008.” Here’s happens when Americans convert their old incandescent bulbs to CFLs.

First of all, you know the basic numbers. CFLs use 75% less electricity than incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount of illumination (thereby saving you money on your electricity bills), avoid CO2 and other pollution from coal plants (thereby improving our health and environment), and last 7-10 times longer than incandescent bulbs (thereby sparing us time and energy to reach up to keep changing those ceiling bulbs).

Second, because of various state and proposed federal laws, as well as market factors, incandescent bulbs are likely to be largely phased out over the next five years. When you go to shop at Loew’s (the My Carbon Pledge co-sponsor), most of what you’ll being seeing on the shelves are modern CFLs, not incandescent bulbs.

Third, here are the numbers that might knock your socks off. Residential consumers account for about 40% of the electricity demand in many communities, and lighting accounts for about 20%-25% of their electricity use. That means around 8% of overall electricity demand is due to residential lighting. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs, which use 75% less electricity, will thereby reduce overall electricity demand by about 6%. Since coal plants are responsible for about 40% of the region’s global warming pollution, this one residential sector change alone – which saves people money – will reduce overall CO2 pollution by about 2.5%

That doesn’t even take into account what business, city halls, hospitals, schools, park facilities, religious houses of worship, and sports stadiums can do with more efficient lighting. A quiet market revolution is taking place through sophisticated lighting technologies and more efficient appliances, computers, motors and controls. We’re at a tipping point, as higher energy prices and technological advances kick in.

As I mentioned in my blog last month, commercial lighting technologies today are much more energy efficient, with high-tech control systems and ballasts. The paybacks are robust, and financing is widely available for building improvements. It is practically property management malpractice to ignore these opportunities in downtown office buildings. Constructing new buildings without state-of-the-art energy efficiency makes little economic sense.

What’s more: Super-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are coming into the market. They are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs, last longer than CFLs and can produce light in any color. LEDs are now marketed as a high-end product, but prices will soon be falling.

Of course, CFLs, LEDs and other lighting efficiencies, alone, won’t be nearly enough progress to solve our global warming problems. But they are a good start, and this is indicative of additional opportunities and technological innovations that can advance global warming solutions that are good for the economy, can create new green jobs and are good for the environment.

What’s next? Keep an eye on what’s happening with Detroit automakers pivoting to market plug-in electric hybrids and other clean cars sooner than previously advertised, technological breakthroughs with solar energy, and advancements in new, more efficient battery technologies. It won’t be easy, but we can get going faster and further on global warming solutions than the naysayers are arguing.

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