Roadblocks to energy efficiency, mercury, and a tunafish sandwich

Roadblocks to energy efficiency, mercury, and a tunafish sandwich

A July 2009 report released by McKinsey & Company entitled Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy neatly summarizes many of the roadblocks to attaining a more energy efficient economy and highlights strategies for getting around those roadblocks.  We have known about these obstacles for awhile, and we have known about the solutions as well.  One of the obstacles cited by McKinsey is the difficulty in evaluating, measuring and verifying energy savings. Behavioral patterns such as custom and habit are a also a barrier, and another obstancle arises from the fact that capturing that energy savings requires an initial up front outlay or investment in new technology that is only later recovered in energy savings.  Solutions to overcoming these obstacles may include information and education, incentives, and mandatory standards. 

These obstacles and solutions are relevant to a number of energy saving products.  Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) are a case in point.  When these energy savings lamps first arrived on the market in significant quantity in the 1990s, they were larger than incandescent lamps, they were considerably more expensive (more than $5.00 vs. $0.25), the color of the light was perceived as being too white, and the energy savings and return on investment was not immediately calculable.  Custom and habit preferred a smaller, warmer lightbulb based on incandescent lamp technology. Custom and habit preferred buying lamps with familiar wattage levels that intuitively translated into a certain brightness.  And the pocketbook was reluctant to part with five or more dollars per lightbulb, when you could not tell how much your utility bill would decrease compared to installing an incandescent lamp.  These barriers are falling for the CFL — slowly.  The CFL is now smaller, its price has fallen by two-thirds or more, the color is warming, and the packages they come in tend to show the incandescent wattage equivalent (26W = 100W) as well as the expected lifetime dollar savings for the bulb based on the average life for that CFL.  In less than 30 months, mandatory lamp efficiency standards adopted by Congress in 2007 will start the phaseout of less efficient 100W incandescent lamps, followed by the phaseout of less efficient lower wattage lamps in 2013 and 2014. 

The European Union began phasing out less efficient lamps this month, and stories of German consumers hoarding incandescent lamps before they disappeared from the shelves received prominent airplay, confirming that for some people custom and habit are difficult to overcome.  A second part of the story is the unfortunate hysteria generated by some groups who claim that our economies are replacing a non-toxic product with a toxic product, because CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury that is essential for their energy saving capability.  This is a potential barrier to achieving energy savings as well.  There are people who actually advocate avoiding CFLs because of their mercury content.  Over the past 20 years, lamp manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury in lamps by 95% or more.  Current CFLs contain less than 4 milligrams of mercury vapor on average; some CFLs even less.  This amount of mercury would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen.  In contrast, an old mercury thermometer that we once willingly put in our mouth had over 100 times that amount of mercury in the bulb.  In the midst of this controversy over banning incandescent lamps comes a report from scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL) that the risk from mercury exposure caused by a broken CFL is "negligble," similar to taking one bite from a tunafish sandwich if the room where the broken bulb is located is quickly ventilated and the debris swept into a container that is taken outdoors.   Even an unlikely worst case exposure, the authors report, is no worse than eating a serving of fish. The article notes that exposure to mercury vapor, which is the form of mercury found in fluorescent lamps, is different than exposure to more hazardous methylmercury, which is the form of mercury problematic for prenatal and young infant development. 

While the health risk from a single broken CFL appears to be negligible, consumers should still keep CFLs out of their trash cans at end of life and dispose of them at retail stores like Home Depot  and other hardware stores or municipal hazardous waste facilities that are collecting spent CFLs.  Lamp manufacturers' packaging has, for several years, encouraged consumers and businesses to dispose of fluorescent lamps including CFLs properly and cause them to be recycled so that mercury does not end up in incinerators or landfills.  While mercury from lamps would not be a significant source of mercury emissions or waste, recycling is a best practice and in some states is now mandatory.  A website, , which is referenced on lamp packaging, conveniently provides useful information to both consumers and business about recycling mercury-containing lamps. 

The Federal Trade Commission is currently engaged in revisiting its labeling rule for lamps.  One of the changes that is likely to come out of this rulemaking is a new informational focus on lumens — a measurement of a lamp's light output — rather than a lamp's power as expressed in watts.  When the consumer decides how much light is desired, she can then compare products for efficiency (measured by lumens per watt, with a higher LPW representing a more efficient product), operating cost, and price.  The goal of the FTC rule is to break down some barriers to energy savings in the manner advocated by the McKinsey report.  The FTC should consider labeling information about mercury content in fluorescent lamps and information about the proper disposal in its current rulemaking, so that another potential obstacle to using these energy savings products is overcome. 

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