Wednesday, November 26, 2014

a major cancer surgery later.... LED/CFLs, Life Cycle, Triple Bottom Line + a holiday suggestion

As some had predicted, CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) about which I had started writing, are winding down and being gradually replaced with LEDs (light emitting diodes - three Japanese received the Nobel Prize in Physics in October 2014 for inventing the blue LED which paved the way for their everyday use). The three main advantages of LEDs are that they consume far less energy than CFLs (about 1/4, i.e. about 1/10 of conventional incandescent bulbs), I would think they are less energy-consuming in their production process (I don't know that for a fact, but the amount of materials is smaller), and mostly they have been touted as having an infinite lifetime. BUT, buying Christmas lights yesterday, I noticed these were marked as having a "lifetime of 22 years at an average of 3 hours per day" which, albeit far better than conventional incandescents and CFLs, is still finite.

The real question is once again whether if, taking a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) approach, the net result of switching from incandescent bulbs to LEDs will reduce the US's net energy consumption, or not. Based on my limited knowledge of the process, I believe LEDs will provide a net economy. But to actually be certain, one would have to assess the complex production system and distribution chain to get real numbers. For instance, residential LEDs are much heavier than their equivalent incandescent bulbs, which requires more fuel to transport them; on the other hand, they are less fragile, so the loss in manufacturing and transport (and at the end point of use) is likely much less; but then again, the quantity of materials necessary to make an LED that looks like what we are accustomed to seeing as household lightbulbs is larger than that required to make a simple incandescent. Such is the complexity of LCA!

Adding the cost factor, and deriving an LCCA (Life Cycle Cost Analysis), we would generate two new perspectives: from the consumers' perspective, the financial cost of an LED is still over ten times the cost of an incandescent; from the manufacturers' and distributors' perspectives, one would have to assess their profit margins to decide whether LEDs are more profitable or less than incandescents - incandescents have been around for so long that the manufacturing process is well amortized, and that should be weighed (in economic terms) against the investments (recent) in LED manufacturing; but new technology means new jobs...

As with everything in America (not yet so pronounced in the rest of the world), it boils down to the Single Bottom Line, i.e. profits. In reality, we should be looking at everything in terms of Triple Bottom Line (John Elkington,1994), which adds to the Financial factor those of Social and Environmental cost/benefit

Consider for instance President Obama's 2009 Car Allowance Rebate System (aka Cash for Clunkers) to replace older vehicles with more fuel efficient ones: while the claims were to entice energy conservation by improved personal vehicle fuel efficiency, the main effect was to prevent American auto manufacturers (GM) from going into bankruptcy. 

But even if a citizen were to swap a 1960-era gas guzzler getting 10mpg for a modern hybrid getting 50mpg (which none of them actually get), the 40mpg savings over 15 years (maximum expected lifetime of a modern vehicle) vs the environmental cost of manufacturing and shipping the new vehicle to its point of sale, plus the environmental cost of disposing of the old vehicle will NEVER come close to offsetting the old vehicle's gas footprint (not to mention that old clunker could relatively easily be repaired for just about any failure, whereas the modern one requires replacing complete chunks - which have to be manufactured and recycled, etc...).

If we want to become more sustainable as a society (the US currently has a per capita consumption footprint 4 to 5 times higher than the aggregated rest of the world), we cannot elude ourselves into the idea that turning off lights in one room or riding a bicycle to work is going to make one bit of difference. We need a much more DRASTIC reduction in our consumption! We managed such a drastic change after the 1973 oil crunch and again under President Carter (those were the years in which carpool lanes were invented, the right to turn right on a red light, and NASA night photos show noticeable differences in city lights).

Before you buy that beautiful hybrid or electric car, fooling yourself into thinking that you are "being green[er]", try doing a few minutes of research and assessing the true environmental impact of your behavior. If you want to change our environmental behavior, start by questioning every single of your purchasing decisions before you buy.

This holiday season, be thankful for what you DO NOT buy.

I give thanks for my new life, and the many from far and wide who helped me through my toughest challenge yet.