Light Indoctrination

It’s currently taken as a truism that incandescent light bulbs–that old technology invented by Thomas Edison over a century ago–are incredibly inefficient and that everyone with an environmental conscience should switch to more energy efficient lighting such as compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Although I am very concerned about the state of our environment, the fact that various governments will be mandating this switch in the near future makes me suspect that there is more than a little propaganda lurking about.

Firstly, there is no such thing as an energy-efficient light bulb. The first law of thermodynamics states that “energy can be transformed, i.e. changed from one form to another, but cannot be created nor destroyed.” When electricity passes through a light bulb, it is transformed into light and heat. So, “high energy efficiency” is actually a shorthand for “a higher ratio of light to heat energy output.” Incandescent bulbs have a low light–heat output ratio, only converting approximately 2–5% of input energy into light, which sounds appalling.

But the key thing lost in reducing the dialogue about light bulbs to “energy efficiency” is that the energy converted to heat is not necessarily “energy loss” or waste, but is merely heat energy which, depending on your climate, is not necessarily a waste. I started writing this from Winnipeg in February, a time at which we welcome heat in whichever form we can get it.

In a place like Winnipeg, we have our lights turned on the most when the days are short (winter) and our heat requirements are at their peak. Instead of completely relying on our furnace for our heating needs, we have many little space heaters scattered around our houses that also happen to provide some light. And during the time of year when the heat energy produced by incandescent lights is undesirable (aka summer), we have very long days and short nights, meaning we don’t turn them on often or for long.

In addition, a recent report by BC Hydro estimates that the move over to mandatory CFLs in 2012 (more on that below) will increase BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45,000 tonnes per year as people need to burn more fossil fuels to heat their homes. When seen in this light (pun intended), the environmentalist rhetoric surrounding energy efficient lighting is starting to sound like greenwashing.

Not only this, but how often do you hear about the environmental issues surrounding the disposal of CFLs? CFLs contain about 4-5mg of mercury, which isn’t much in and of itself. But, how many broken bulbs will we be exposed to over our lifetime, particularly as CFLs become the only option? And what about all the bulbs in landfills, which will surely be broken there if they weren’t when they arrived? Will all that mercury seep into the water supply?

These points make it ridiculous that the Canadian government is banning the sale of incandescent bulbs in 2012. Will the government also educate the public about the risks posed by mercury and the care that should be taken when cleaning up broken bulbs? Will fluorescent bulb recycling plants be opened, with accompanying public education that CFLs must be recycled rather than sent to the landfill?

The main source of this greenwashing in Manitoba is MB Hydro who, despite being a crown corporation charged with the public good, are more interested in getting Manitobans to use less electricity so that more can be sold for profit to our USA neighbours. Despite the fact that a northern continental climate mitigates against much (or possibly all) of the environmental benefit of switching to CFLs, MB Hydro keeps pushing out the energy efficiency propaganda to Manitobans, who largely accept it.

None of this even touches on the fact that CFLs produce ugly light that should be considered degrading to our human dignity. The hum, the greenish hue, the flickering, the minor UV output that damages coloured pigments, the fact that it makes everything it touches unappealing: these are all excellent aesthetic reasons to abhor CFLs. In short, we’re being asked to accept ugly lights that cost more money, have serious disposal issues, and may actually increase green house gas emissions as an incontrovertible good.

Higher light-efficiency output bulbs solve very little. Like hybrid cars, they take a serious environmental issue and present a shallow solution that not only don’t scratch the surface of a problem, they may actually exacerbate it. A fourth R (after the original trio of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) of “Rebrand” seems to apply to most environmental issues today. “You don’t actually have to change your lifestyle, you can just buy this green product in place of the wasteful/polluting product everyone else buys,” seems to be the message.

Buying CFL bulbs is easier to swallow than living in smaller homes that consume less energy, just like buying a hybrid car doesn’t require us to question a way of life that requires a personal automobile for every possible errand to and from our McMansions. Instead of radically rethinking the way we do things, we produce stopgap solutions that cover up the fundamental structures of our unsustainable energy consumption.

So, let’s stop the propaganda and actually start talking about how we can live more sustainably. Let’s stop treating sustainability in one place as the same as another. Let’s ask the right questions and find the right answers and do something before it’s too late.

6 thoughts on “Light Indoctrination

  1. Thank you – hate those bulbs – hope they don’t start checking for them at the border because I will keep buying my inefficient ones at Mardens! I can keep you guys stocked too :)

  2. When you turn on a light, you want that light 100% of the time. You may also want heat some of the time. Maybe that’s 80% of the time in Canada, and close to 0% in much of the world. There’s still going to be a degree of wastage when the heat is a bye product.
    For example the heat coming off exterior lights will usually be waste, even in cold places.

    I can understand why bans rub people the wrong way though.

    The other side is that CFLs typically last a lot longer than traditional bulbs. And as LEDs gradually replace CFLs they last longer still and without a lot of the UV/flickering problems you mentioned…and even less heat output.

  3. @Mike Thanks for the comment. The key point in my article was that CFLs sidestep the larger questions about sustainability. Also, latent in my argument (but not spelled out) is that sustainability is always a local affair. I agree that, in many places, CFL light bulbs are a net win. The case for that where I live is tenuous at best, yet nowhere questioned. Sustainability advocates need to be much less satisfied with truisms.

  4. The CFL silver bullet propaganda is pretty over the top here in Manitoba.

    There’s an enormous mural covering a building on a major street depicting cute little girls lying on a grassy hill gazing up at a blue sky watching fluffy clouds. Only the clouds are shaped like CFL light bulbs and it says something about “dreaming a better future”.
    Yes, I’m sure that’s what little girls dream about.

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