I was wondering the other day about the total environmental impact of many of the “green” products we’ve seen recently. I am overwhelmed with the concept a good friend of mine at Ernst & Young say… let me know what you want the numbers to say… that is, depending on how you report the figures, you can make the same research say different things. A good example of short-sightedness would be back to the MTBE fuel additive that was mandate in California to help protect the environment. While it did as advertised with regards to air pollution, it failed to protect the water supply which it polluted. So much they decided to reverse the requirement for MTBE. To go a step further, another flaw with MTBE was that it caused the deterioration of rubber seals inside many automotive engines, specifically those used in the fuel delivery system. There was an increase of car fires as a direct result. Infact my own vehicle burned to the ground because of MTBE. It caught fire during rush hour, on a major freeway and still, by the time the fire department showed up, it was way too late… And I wondered as my car spewed tons of smoke into the air, how much damage is being done here.
The point is, have we really evaluated the total impact of the changes we are making today in the interest of being environmentally friend?
Think of your basic CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) which is being sold like crazy in California. And the energy companies are even providing rebates… While there is no doubt that it uses less power than conventional incandescent lamps, which will reduce in a lower electricity bill and therefore less demand on power output, and finally less pollution from those power plants…
– The environmental benefits are significantly reduced as clean power comes online (wind, solar, water, etc).
– CFL’s contain very hazardous materials which must be recycled, to avoid pollution. Yet, we can only begin to guess how many of these are ending up in the landfill and the potential problems with mercury in the water table.
– Incandecent dimmers must be removed – so that means calling out an electrician (vehicle emissions), disposing of these old dimmers and installing new switches.
– Power factor, the efficient of CFL is very poor compared to incandescents, and while you will not be charged for this different directly (i.e. more kw/h) it does affect the demand on the power grid and power station, which will result in their operating costs increasing – which will increase their environmental output, not only from their power stations, but the need to increase the distribution system; A 10 watt CFL, with a typical power factor of .52 will draw 19 watts of power from the power station (but you will only be charged for 10 watts) – an incandescent is a 1:1 power factor, so 40 watts is 40 watts;
– Inrush current (power demand when switched on) can be upwards of 100 times the actual operating wattage.
– Poor life span when used in real world situations; in the theoretical environments a CFL will last 10x longer than an incandescent, but CFLs are much more prone to premature failure with each on/off cycle – and when pushed to 5min on/off cycles, a CFL will last only twice as long as an incandescent.
– Environmental impact of other components used in manufacturing, many of which are not recyclable.
– How much energy and environmental impact is taken in the production of these lamps which include PCB and fine electronics, hazardous gas, and other materials?
Have the total environmental impact from development to disposal really been taking into consideration? While there does appear to be some benefit to CFLs their environmental impact (or the positive) I believe has been exaggerated.
However, why would the local power companies be offering incentives… Simple, CFLs do draw less power than incandescents, even with the poor power factor. So it does reduce their need to upgrade the power grid as we add more and more electronics into each home and community. It is a small step towards saving energy. And that is a good thing, but that has become the focus of CFL instead of environmental stewardship.