Sunday, February 14, 2010

One thing CFLs can save you from: electrical fires

My earlier post arguing the "hidden defects" of compact fluorescent lamps omitted one important advantage, brought up to me by my friend Gene Szafranski. The lower current drawn by CFLs versus incandescent bulbs for a same amount of light is very important in buildings with old wiring.

Old wiring with the coiled metal sheath on the outside is known to be a very serious fire hazard. This type of wiring is common in most homes that built before the second World War. The conductor wires inside the metal sheath are themselves wrapped in individual insulators which used to be fabric and early plastics (nowadays, our plastic insulators are far better quality). As these old insulating materials aged, they became brittle; if you've replaced a ceiling fixture on an older home, you are likely to have seen bare wires, stripped of their insulation. There are two reasons for this brittleness.

First, the simple heat of the lightbulb serves to bake the wire; that's why many lamps have stickers restricting their use to 60W bulbs or less - a limit that we often ignore as we grow accustomed to more light. Second, the current drawn through the wire to power the lightbulb creates a proportional amount of heat. So long as the insulator is in good shape, that's not a problem. But once the insulation begins to decay, the stripped wire may arc with the external sheath. If the ground connection is improper (often the case), this arcing can lead to the exterior metal coil becoming red hot, which in turn risks setting ablaze any material with which it comes into contact.

This is definitely one positive thing to be stated in favor of CFLs. On the other hand, using CFLs will not ensure that a house with old wiring does not catch fire. While retrofitting electrical systems is very costly, it is probably one of the very safest investments in an old home.

Consume less, share, repair - and smile!
4 simple steps towards sustainable living...

On the Sustainability of Sports

This week's announcement of the possible bankruptcy of the Portsmouth football (soccer) team in the UK was described as the result of overly inflated prices and wages, all part of unsustainable free market policies. The NPR commentator made a clear point that the origin of the league (I believe it was mentioned being near 100 years old) was as a means for players to PLAY, nothing more.

At some point, marketing got involved and in its current form, little attention is paid to whether the players enjoy their game or not; the principal criteria of performance is quantified in terms of compensation - and revenues from advertising and whatever else. What a shift from the original goal of promoting friendly (though no less competitive) exchanges! It is little wonder that many people in our Western societies find any free time for enjoying themselves.

Consume less, share, repair - and smile! 
Three simple steps towards Sustainability...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The fallacies of green building

Air conditionning = bad
Natural convective cooling = good -- provided you live in the right region and have the proper house

Solar photovoltaics = good, but only if you live in isolated areas with unreliable grid service. In urban and suburban areas, PV are unlikely to ever make sense.

Truly sustainable energy? I hate to admit it, but if we really must supply ourselves with ever increasing energy needs (your house may be better insulated than mine, but the energy involved in building it was probably higher), much less address the needs of the rest of the world, our only short term hope is .... nuclear. I almost feel like apologizing for such a blatant statement, especially since I participated in demonstrations outside Creil Malville in France, back in 197x(?). The fact is that my homeland, France, has now been providing for 85% of its electricity through nuclear power for over 20 years, and that we (thankfully) have not had any bad accident.

Technology has evolved a huge amount in the past 30 years. This is true for reactor design, for control systems, and for waste treatment. France has several re-generators that take the highly-radioactive waste from the cruder/older generators, and extracts further power from it while reducing its radioactivity. I'm no nuclear scientist, but I do have a couple of engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As I understand it, the forthcoming ITER reactor, which is scheduled to begin operating in 2020 has pretty high expectations of successfully producing controlled fusion. In the meantime, it is said that progress is forthcoming on methods for further reducing the radioactivity of all current nuclear waste.

Friday, February 5, 2010

why Cash for Clunkers are another ecological failure

in half a year, several tens of thousands of vehicles, many of which were perfectly functional, were taken to the dump! All the tires, rubber seals, plastic-coated electrical wires, upholstery, seatbelts, dashboards, and decorative parts had to be taken off each vehicle; the engine, transmission, brake lines, and drive train had to be drained of their oils (hazardous waste). Then, the vehicle was CRUSHED!

Most of us have seen images of crash tests; modern vehicles are designed to withstand considerable pressure and impact. Crushing these thousands of vehicles required immense amounts of energy - not to mention the energy expended in trucking them to the junk yards.

In terms of transport of material (a Ford Explorer weighs around 4500 lbs), changing one's vehicle for a new one would ordinarily involve one single long-distance transport, that of bringing the new vehicle to the dealership; the older vehicle would be transferred locally to a used dealership or an auctioneer. However, with Cash for Clunkers, the mandatory destruction of all returned vehicles involved an inverse journey for the mass of metal and other products nearly as long as the original supply chain, incurring a huge carbon cost.

Worse is that the large majority of these vehicles had a remaining lifetime of up to 5-10 years in our society; in a less wasteful society (Haiti for instance), they might have served for another 20 years.

My point is that Cash for Clunkers was a huge environmental COST. There is absolutely no way to justify that the energy cost of disposing of the clunkers and replacing them with more fuel-efficient vehicles might yield anything other than a net CARBON DEFICIT. Most consumers reportedly gained less than10mpg in their trade. At 15,000 miles per year, it would take more than the lifetime of the vehicle (10 years) to offset the Carbon cost of producing the vehicle, not to mention that of disposing of the old one. However, we gave the auto industry and new technologies a boost. [On the other hand, I might inquire whether there maybe a correlation between the problems found on Toyota vehicles (February, 2010) and the mad rush to fill orders generated by Cash for Clunkers the previous year. ]

If Cash for Clunkers did anything positive, it was for the economy. The program got inventories moving and it jump started (if only temporarily) the automotive industry, the second largest industrial segment after construction. But its contribution to our nations' carbon footprint remained out of the headlines.

Americans still need to completely rethink our social behavior, especially our consumption habits. Those of us who really want to make a difference in the world must commit to a radical shift in our daily lives. Biking instead of driving helps, but it's not enough. We need to think about the carbon cost of everything that we consume, even of that which we recycle.

Consume less, share what you can, repair when possible - and smile! 
Simple steps to sustainability!

Compact fluorescent light-bulbs (CFLs) are BAD!

Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) are a BAD environmental option, for many worse reasons than the phosphorescent deposits on their glass.

First and foremost, they are made of mixed media. This includes the metal socket and glass bulb of conventional incandescent bulbs, but to this we add a plastic casing which contains an electronic circuit. The only way to separate these 4 components in the waste stream is through manual intervention; furthermore, the electronic circuit in itself is not recyclable. The subject of recycling CFLs is so problematic that it is carefully avoided in all pertinent literature, even in the papers published by the Rocky Mountain Institute (a reference in environmental impacts of energy use/sources - this reference as of September, 2009).

But even if everyone were to bring non-functioning CFLs to specialized collection sites (i.e. not mixed with any other material whatsoever), their disassembly and separating the components would be very costly, and the plastic, electronics, and "toxified glass" would be very difficult to recycle. In contrast, the glass and metal in an incandescent bulb are easily separated and recycled: metal is pulled out by magnet, and the fine glass is rapidly ground down to silica.

Consider next the fact that we had a perfectly operational industry for manufacturing conventional incandescent lightbulbs, which we are replacing with much more complex and energy consuming processes to produce CFLs. Add to this the carbon cost of transport (CFLs are about 5 times heavier), and you'll see plainly that there is no way that the environmental cost of this change in our industrial processes will ever be offset by the lower energy consumption of CFLs.

Finally, the main argument used to push CFLs has been that incandescent lightbulbs use about 5 times as much energy for an equivalent amount of light; this additional energy is emitted in the form of heat. However, in parts of the nation where heating systems are in operation for 6 months of the year or more (i.e. more than half the USA), one must consider that the heat emitted by lightbulbs offsets that emitted by the heating system.

Accurate energy calculations are extremely complex. But it is quite clear that CFLs will not reduce the carbon footprint of the US, but rather increase it in the long run. What we need is a complete paradigm shift in our lifestyle. 

Consume less, share what you can, repair when possible - and smile! Simple steps to sustainability!