Thursday, January 10, 2008

ABCs of CFLs

Environmental change continues its trek toward recognition by humanity at a breakneck speed. Just like sturdy yarn, information is streaming in from points all over the globe that is being woven into a colorful fabric with an unmistakable pattern stamped with a decidedly human touch. What that pattern will be, we have yet to find out. But, what we do know is that we have the opportunity to make changes to the unfolding pattern as we go, and maybe, just maybe, we will end up with a servicable garment of lasting beauty.

In a literal way, a mass movement of lighted change has been instigated by the passage of the recent Energy Bill, and its requirement that fluorescent light bulbs replace incandescent light bulbs by 2012. The United States alone has billions of sockets to refill with Compact Fluorescent Lights aka CFLs and various utility companies are helping with that by subsidizing the purchase of the new bulbs. I
recently got mine for $1 at a local hardware store, subsidized by the electric company. In California the CFLs are going for a mere 50 cents, subsidized by PG&E, the utility company made famous in the Erin Brockavitch movie. On its front page Wednesday edition , WSJ reports:

"To cut energy costs and help reduce the emissions that cause global warming, utilities such as PG&E are facing an unusual imperative. They need to convince consumers to use less of their product. PG&E is staking its success on getting consumers to junk conventional incandescent bulbs in favor of energy efficient CFLs--corkscrew or egg-shaped bulbs that use about a quarter as much electricity as regular bulbs and last several times longer."

Why would utilities want to cut their own production? Well, last year the State of California mandated that its three largest energy companies reduce energy use by the equivalent of three power plants to earn big bonuses, and that incentive got their collective attention. So much so, that last fall, one of them gave away a million CFLs free! The state is grousing that the utilities should be looking at other options besides light bulbs, but the companies have no incentive to look past the easiest one--getting CFLs into the hands of consumers ASAP.

In the company's defense, this lighted change is easy for consumers as well and no more costly with the subsidies than ordinary bulbs. My first CFL was installed last week with 11 more to go.
The light is soothing and the energy savings could be substantial when the whole house is converted. However, as is usual with any change of this national magnitude, a group of consumers may be hurt, and they are letting their voices be heard. On a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome list-serve this morning was the following entry, by a Margaret Holt Baird, in which she requested information from physicians, patients and support groups. Obviously, from her remarks, some will suffer mightily if the ban completely eliminates incandescents or greatly increases their price:

"I have been asked by Congressman Howard Coble's office to send a paper outlining all of our medical conditions impacted adversely by the Energy Act's incandescent light ban of 2012. They requested that my paper contain input from the disability community, including persons with photosensitive epilepsy, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, lupus, migraines as well as CFS, MCS and related complex partial non-clonic seizures I have after about 4 - 5 minutes in the [fluorescent] lighting."

Thus, we will watch as this CFL movement unfolds over the next 4 years and see how incandescents fare in the exchange.

Speaking of energy and electricity, another causal candidate has emerged as a future contributing agent to global warming. This time the villain is the trillion tons of methane gas trapped in the Arctic permafrost. As reported in DISCOVER magazine (February 2008, p. 14) when the permafrost melts, this methane gas in all its abundance will be released to the atmosphere. A researcher at the University of Alaska says that the "gas release could re-create climate conditions that prevailed during a 2,500 warming spell that began 14,000 years ago." The enlightened part, however, is that several companies, including BMW, want to harness this smelly gas to produce energy. The methane conversion technologies are not new and have been used in landfills for years. What is groundbreaking is the newly uncovered source and the unexpected tonnage which has gotten many companies salivating.

On another environmental note, a recent surge in food production in Africa is making headlines as reported by the WSJ
(1-9-08, p. B7) from The Wilson Quarterly's Winter edition:

"There is an agricultural revival taking place in sub-Saharan Africa that defies the typical dire images of life on the continent that most Westerners see, . . .the boom has been brought about by rising global prices for farm products and low labor and land costs. Exports of vegetables, fruits and flowers exceed $2 billion a year, up from virtually zero 25 years ago"

This, if true, is good news. Another way poor African farmers might be helped is a reduction in world-wide farm subsidies and tariffs. The recent World Goodwill newsletter spent its entire current issue on the challenges facing farming around the globe. It reported that negotiations continue at the World Trade Organization Headquarters in Geneva to focus efforts in achieving these needed reductions. However, the newsletter emphasized that consumers too were responsible for decisions about food and should not always look to governments to fix the problem: "Consumers also generate food miles. . .shopping by car. Consideration of food miles must also include disposal of food and packaging to landfill or recycling. Another way to minimize environmental impact is for people to grow their own food in gardens and allotments. " Though, I have to admit, this might be a challenge for city folks. The informative newsletter goes on to say that new farming modalities are emerging that show great promise:

"Yet, despite there being challenges in agriculture, there are signs of new life on the horizon, for example biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and the increasing demand for organic food sourcing; and in the developing world La Via Campesina [is one organization that promotes] a model of peasant or family farm agriculture based on sustainable production with local resources and in harmony with local culture and traditions."

To learn more about this enlightened group, visit

And moving on to animals, conservationists have figured out a way to revive the dwindling vicuna (think llama or alpaca) population that had been eradicated by poachers and competition with cattle in Peru. Once numbering several million, by the 1960s only 10,000 of the fated animals survived. Why the greater international community cared was an interest in creating an economic engine to alleviate local poverty
because Vicuna wool is highly prized worldwide and commands a steep price while at the same time saving an endangered species. The solution was brilliant and a win-win for all parties, except the hapless poachers, of course. The Zoogoer, a Smithsonian magazine publication, stated in its January/February 2008 edition as quoted in the WSJ:

"Conservation efforts have restored the population to several hundred thousand, . . .In Peru, villagers round up and shear the vicuna every two or three years to let the fur regrow. This way the locals get the economic benefit of the fur while the shorn vicunas have little appeal to poachers."

And finally, as somewhat of a futurist, I spied the following quote in WSJ yesterday concerning the world-wide web. It is hard for me to picture the scenario, but I have no doubt that Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch is correct in his prognostications as reported by journalist L. Gordon Crovitz :

"We take so much of this network effect for granted that we don't really think about it anymore. When we use a toaster, we don't speak of 'going onto the electrical grid.' Soon,. . .we may no longer think of ourselves as 'going onto the internet.' The Web's services will be as ubiquitous, networked and shared as electricity now is. [Carr] predicts that that we'll get into the habit of entering a 'cloud' of computing, accessing services provided by Google, Facebook, and innovators yet to come, no longer tethered to whatever software may be loaded onto our computer. Just as Edison's model failed, Mr. Carr argues, so will Bill Gates's. . ."

But in the meantime, the Gates's foundation is giving its fortune to eradicate disease in Africa and other developing nations in a business-like way never before attempted with previously inconceivable amounts of money. These facts cannot be ignored by the world-wide community and, thus, we come full circle, as usually happens, when viewing the world as Observers.

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