Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A bright idea

One of the interesting ideas that Stephen Schneider proposed was that new efficient technologies should be imposed via legislation if they were sufficiently superior to existing ones. The threshold at which he claims this is justified is a 7% return on investment and/or an 11 year payback time - I'm not sure how those numbers add up, but never mind! My first instinct was to think that there should be no need for such rules, as the new technology would surely be rapidly adopted, but I suppose the real world doesn't work that way.

In fact, one clear demonstration that the real world doesn't work that way is the widespread continuing use of incandescent light bulbs, despite low-energy ones being far more efficient and cheaper overall. So I was interested to see that Australia is intending to phase out incandescents completely over the next 3 years. I've been buying low-energy bulbs gradually to replace existing bulbs when they blow in our house - with electricity at ¥25 per kWh, a 40W bulb will cost ¥1 per hour which adds up to ¥1000 per year at 3h use per day. An efficient bulb would only cost ¥200 to run over this time, saving its full ¥800 cost in the first year. Even in countries with less astonishing electricity prices, the payback will be acceptably rapid for well-used lighting. The bulbs themselves last longer too.

Actually I'm mildly sceptical about the magnitude of these savings, especially in colder climates when the "waste" energy is actually turning into useful heat. But in Japan in the summer it's not merely wasted but even adds to the airconditioning load.


Anonymous said...

I've seen a number of reasons given for not moving to incandescents (some are genuine downsides, some are out of date and some are silly):

1) Long time to full brightness.

2) Large and unsightly

3) High start-up current negates the on-time savings

4) Global warming's a fraud and those greens who want us to return to the stone age by enforcing low energy bulbs are just green fascists and those bulbs use more energy in making and start-up than normal bulbs....etc.

Point 4 is a bit of a paraphrase and may be conflating a few people, but I have read an argument that was pretty close to that.

Unsaid, but I think common is the fact that many people just compare the costs of the bulbs at purchase time and make the short-term saving without fully considering any (potential) long-term ones.

The incandescent vs low energy light bulb discussion is one that I've not yet seen done to completeness. For example, a few points that I've not been able to clear up to my satisfaction:

1) How useful is the "waste energy" in a light fitting, near the ceiling (especially in an upstairs, or high ceilinged room)?

2) Every time you turn a low energy bulb on or off you shorten its life (I guess the same is true of incandescents). Is it still best to use them in rooms where they will be on for no more than a couple of minutes at a time (taking into account point 3)?

3) Do low energy bulbs take much more energy to manufacture? How about if factoring in distribution if usage of incandescents have shorter lives?

All of these contribute to the actual savings over the stated.

That all said, I do think there are savings and have switched to them - if nothing else we saved when power problems caused our neighbours to lose nearly a bulb a day over several weeks, and we lost not one.

Luboš Motl said...

Schneider's comments may be worth a discussion but still, the main idea underlying all these environmentalists and their proclamations is that capitalism is flawed.

Capitalism is not flawed. If a company produces a product that is deliberately not long-lasting, it is doing so for a very good reason. The reason is that the company needs to survive. If lightbulbs don't last for too long, people will have to buy newer ones in the future. The newer ones will be more advanced.

This cycle - people forced to buy new things - is the real source of money for the companies and the real source of progress. If this mechanism didn't exist, there would be no progress. We would still be using the same steam engines as in the 17th century and no one would have resources to do better.

Moreover, creating a committee or a department that would be deciding which technology is superior is a dumb communist policy. Governments can never decide better than the markets because they are, by definition, filled with people who were not selected by the competition in the free market.

Would you believe that Schneider would be able to choose a better lightbulb technology than CEO of companies that have worked in it for years? I don't.

It's clear what such a communist proposal would lead to. Linux activists would force such an agency to switch the world from the state-of-the-art Windows Vista to a medieval Linux operating system, and so on and on and on. Renaults (or Trabants) would replace Mercedeses because they are more progressive - meaning they suck more.

Finally, products of Nature like Mr Schneider himself would replace the relatively skillful people who are deciding about all sorts of questions because Schneider is more progressive which is what would matter.

Wouldn't it be better for Mr Schneider and all of his soulmates to admit that their 19th century Marxist misconceptions have already been discredited by the experience from 1/3 of the world throughout the 20th century, instead of recycling this trash all the time? The record of your policies is already catastrophical - why do you want to double it? All of you should be ashamed.

Oliver said...

The Californian version of this initiative is, quite entertainingly, called the How Many Legislators Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb Act

EliRabett said...

Lumo's faith in capitalism is touching. He might consider the effects of advertising.

Anonymous said...

More light bulbs:


Brian said...

A 7% rate of return will payback the investment in about 11 years.

I hesitate to even slightly agree with Lumos, but I've often wondered about the monetary savings claim by enviros. My "faith in free market" guess is that while it does save money, it's not worth the managerial effort involved in replacing inefficient systems (although it would be if external costs were included). My "Dilbert-style" response is that corporations don't act efficiently, especially if your capital improvements and ongoing operations budgets are separately managed by rival corporate henchmen.

James Annan said...

The only material problem I am aware of is that low energy bulbs used to be incompatible with dimmer switches which were at one point fashionable in the UK - I don't know if that problem has been solved.

Brian, I don't see how the 7/11 numbers work, especially one you consider opportunity cost/inflation etc. If you pay off 7% of a loan each year it will take more than 11 years to clear! Nevertheless, low-energy bulbs are a but of a no-brainer.

Lumo is just his usual ranting self, as expected. Clearly in civilised society we do various things to protect people from their own stupidity (eg seatbelts, age-limits on drinking and smoking). The interesting question is not whether we should or should not do this at all, but where we draw the line in particular cases.

James Annan said...

Oh, the other thing I was going to say is that I bought two new bulbs last weekend and they are much much quicker to full brightness than the ones I bought even 2-3 years ago. So I reckon that problem is essentially solved. They are also easy to find in small sizes in Japan, virtually indistinguishable from incandescents.

Luboš Motl said...

Well, I think that a person must be really, really stupid if she or he doesn't understand why what I wrote is true and crucial.

But let me mention one more thing, about the nature of "environmentalism". Fluorescent lights work with mercury. When discarded in the normal way - and be sure that most of them are not treated rigorously but they are just thrown away - they contaminate environment, rivers, and landfills.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal.

Saying that incandescent lightbulbs are universally inferior environmentally is just dumb.

James Annan said...


30 seconds of googling found:

"Ironically, compact fluorescent bulbs are responsible for less mercury contamination than the incandescent bulbs they replaced, even though incandescents don't contain any mercury. The highest source of mercury in America’s air and water results from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, at utilities that supply electricity. Since a compact fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, and lasts at least six times longer, it is responsible for far less mercury pollution in the long run. A coal-burning power plant will emit four times more mercury to produce the electricity for an incandescent bulb than for a compact fluorescent."

Of course the lowering of mercury levels (in both lights and power station exhaust) can be encouraged/mandated by regulation, but I guess you'd prefer to leave the free market to deal with those too :-)

Anonymous said...

"Oh, the other thing I was going to say is that I bought two new bulbs last weekend and they are much much quicker to full brightness than the ones I bought even 2-3 years ago. So I reckon that problem is essentially solved."

It seems to me that there are different types of cf bulbs (not just old and new) and some brighten more quickly than others, and people's opinions tend to be coloured by whichever one they've tried, or how long ago. It's odd that trying them once five years ago means they've probably written them off totally.

Here's a site pushing the regulation route: http://www.banthebulb.co.uk/

As for corporations (not) being efficient, I've done projects at enough to know that they almost certainly aren't - at least any organisation over 100 people in size. I've seen little difference to the government departments where I've done work.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, that was the wrong link.
Try this one: http://www.banthebulb.org/

C W Magee said...

Hg is notoriously difficult to remove from exhaust. Above 300C the oxide decomposes into O2 + Hg vapour, and any organics or reduced S that the Hg could bind to is oxidized by the combustion of the coal.

Australian houses are generally insulated so poorly that lightbulb heat is irrelevant- when I was a student, my Korean housemate would start the day in June by microwaving the peanut oil for his breakfast stir-fry, as it would congeal in the cupboard overnight.

James Annan said...


I specifically chose some labelled as "rapid-on" but the price differential between them and the ordinary ones was pretty negligible - they were all cheaper than the ones I had bought previously.

I notice on checking carefully (it's all in Japanese of course) that they still don't work with dimmers.

The other old complaint was the sterile colour, but they are sold in 3 slightly different tints now.

TBH we had ourselves been put off a bit by first buying a very cold blue one that took a long time to warm up. I can read more Japanese now though!

Anonymous said...

"specifically chose some labelled as "rapid-on" but the price differential between them and the ordinary ones was pretty negligible - they were all cheaper than the ones I had bought previously."

TBH I haven't needed to buy one for over six months (when we moved house), and bought them from the supermarket, so I'm probably a little out of date on their current state myself.

"I notice on checking carefully (it's all in Japanese of course) that they still don't work with dimmers."

We used to use one in a dimmer light in our old house. Worked okay except you'd sometimes get variable light at very low settings, but it was usable. Above about 1/3 setting it was as good as any other combination. The bulbs said not to use with dimmers as well.

I'm assuming the problem's more theoretical than actual?

Incidentally I've not been questioning the "no brainer" opinion on these at all. I fully agree on that point. I've just tried to understand those people who have objections to them - and it mostly seems to be hearsay with the odd justified quibble.

Luboš Motl said...

James, your argument reminds me of the Christian arguments that Christianity has [all great adjectives] because God is [all great adjectives]. That's why Christian songs are better than non-Christian songs, and so forth.

Don't be silly. Energy is energy and if there is some mercury released when it's produced, it's a current state of affairs but it doesn't have to be so in the future. There are ways to produce energy with no mercury.

The production of mercury in power plants is under control, unlike the mercury from light bulbs that get discarded at random places. It's just known that the mercury from plants doesn't represent any superserious problem.

On the other hand, there are not too many ways to produce energy without CO2, and in some contexts, these CO2-free methods are unusable.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism works for a lot of purposes. But if you decide to hang a capitalist, don't buy the rope from the lowest bidder, it's likely to be overrated and break.
I think Lenin said that.

I suspect the push to CFLs is driven by the CFL industry needing to get their stuff into longterm use before LEDs become cheap enough to displace it, but I suspect waiting a bit for the LEDs would be smarter.

China, note, is not installing CFLs, they're building LEDs very fast, and improving them very fast, and have announced a goal to replace incandescents with them. Why don't we wait, I wonder?

Much less in the way of _concentrated_ mercury going into landfills with dead CFLs; somewhat less complicated electronics.

Both CFLs and LEDs can be (but usually are not) made with power supplies safe with dimmers or brownouts -- same thing, I think, happens both times.

NOTE THIS: a CFL or LED not rated for dimming _will_ catch fire if run on undervoltage or the wrong voltage for a while. I've seen it happen; I'm warning you, this is not a trivial caution.

Got brownouts? Consider you may want your power supply/voltage support feeding your CFLs as well as your computer.

And do you know CFLs and white LEDs both emit enough blue to keep you awake? No shit, new science. Boiled down to just links and pointers, I put a summary of that here:
and in the following post.

As I noted about deregulating the electric grid, several places over the years, there are times when the physicists tell you that the legislation proposed makes assumptions that don't describe this universe. Politicians vote them in nevertheless.
There was no one but the physicists who could tell the politicians that deregulation, as passed into law, assumed the impossible. On the ‘other side’ were the stockbrokers telling them it would be profitable. Enron, eh?


What’s wrong with the electric grid? - The Industrial Physicist
“… The solution advocated by deregulation critics would revise the rules to put them back into accord with the grid physics. … The system is not outdated, …”

Same here with white CFLs and LEDs -- the blue light emission is well studied since 2001 when the receptor that handles melatonin circadian timing was described. There's plenty of good science warning about this. Rush CFLs into use?

Yeah. I bet it's the damned big pharma sleeping pill industry pushing this one.

James Annan said...


Thanks for the interesting links. I'm not exactly convinced by your hypotheses but OTOH this makes a similar point regarding another imposed technological change (to give a particular vaccine maker a leg-up before a rival comes on to the market).

I don't know if Australia or California have big efficient-bulb industries.

Of course the legislation merely imposes efficiency targets and does not mandate a solution, so LEDs will surely have their day (indeed they are already increasingly widespread). I don't think it is really defensible to argue for no regulation on the specific grounds that any regulations will favour current technologies and thus make it harder for a new one. On that basis you would never do anything at all! Lumo might like this, but most of the rest of us wouldn't.

I'm touched that Lumo is now such devoted guardian of the environment. Obviously mercury from efficient bulbs is tainted by association with greenies whereas the stuff coming out of power stations is good for us because it is the same old capitalist pollution that we are used to. Over here in Japan, we just think of mercury as a little extra flavour enhancement on the tuna-friendly dolphin and whale meat that is force-fed to children and dogs :-)

C W Magee said...

At the risk of indroducing data (albeit low resulution, qualitative data) to this discussion, I have several lightbulb spectra on my blog taken with the average household's most accessable diffraction grating: the music CD.

James Annan said...


I just saw that this morning and was going to ask you exactly how you get such nice images. I had a quick go with my lights but although I could see some nice rainbow-type effects, I got nothing remotely resembling the clarity of your photos. However it was daylight...

C W Magee said...

That's why I'm a techo and you're a modeller.

The key is to keep the detector close enough to the grating that the dispersion distance is equal to the CD width- that distance is surprisingly close- about 10-15 cm. And reduce extraneous light sources, of course. If I get a chance, I'll draw a schematic and upload it.

Anonymous said...

Hank, thanks for the advice about dimmers. Luckily we don't have any in this house but worth remembering.

I won't try and contradict the blue-light wakefulness stuff because there's no reason to and anyway I can't. That said I haven't noticed any issues in getting to sleep since we switched (though there are many other factors that come into play to affect sleep patterns).

On the CF vs LED matter though, if LEDs start coming out and fit standard light fittings, then I can see us switching to them if there are benefits to do so, as the CF's need replacing (in the same way that I made the switch from incandescents originally). So I don't see the CF's having much of an advantage except longer time to bring down costs. In the meantime I'm using less electricity than if I waited the unknown amount of time it'll take for LEDs to become available.

The mandate of efficiency on bulbs reminds me of the drive in Europe (not sure there's any real legislation) to get electronic manufacturers to reduce standby power to 1W rather than 10W that many are today.

James Annan said...


Thanks, I've got it now - nothing as good as your photos, but enough to see the effect.

One thing to remember is that these bulbs "only" last 6000h, and maybe less under typical domestic use, so there is still plenty of opportunity for replacement on the multi-year time scale as technology improves. It's not like people will stop buying new bulbs!

Anonymous said...
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C W Magee said...

Capitalism is alive and well in compacts fluoros, because you get what you pay for. One of our cheapo Ikea bulbs died in under 2 years. While the pricy ones generally hang in there better.

The big point that bloggers miss about this policy is this:
the vast majority of people don't care about, or pay attention to, light bulbs. So the legislation basically serves as an apathy/education replacement. Dunno if that's a good or a bad thing.

Tom Adams said...

Lumo, clarify something for me. Suppose let everyone just dump in the commons. Is that communism?

Suppose eliminate the commons by privatizing it with a cap and trade system. Is that capitalism?

Anonymous said...

One problem with this sort of legislation is it treats all localities the same. Where I live (Juneau Alaska) the power is all hydro except for occasional damage to lines when back up generators are used. For my location the incandescents are the more environmentally friendly choice, and changing to flourescent offers financial savings I'd never even notice.

Luboš Motl said...

Dear Tom,

the answers to your questions are No.

When people dump in the commons - a place that doesn't yet belong to anybody - it is called freedom or capitalism, not communism.

On the other hand, capitalism doesn't allow any "caps". If the whole point of some system is to make everyone obey some caps, then this system is a communist construct, and it doesn't matter whether you use words like "privatizing" or "trade" in the context of this artificially created communist machinery.

The main point that drives everything is a communist regulation.

With some exaggeration, you can use the word "capitalism" for anything. Stalin may send capitalists to Siberia and they will be selling the last sandwich to each other for a market price. Is this system in Siberia capitalism? I choose not to call it this way because I determine whether something is communism or capitalism according to the big picture, not some technical details.


Anonymous said...

The problem here is that you don't have a justification for reducing CO2 emissions in the first place.


James Annan said...


There are lots of good reasons for reducing energy wastage. Of course these vary globally but Japan is heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels (therefore vulnerable to economic and political shocks) and no-one wants more smelly power stations in their own back yard.

And even ignoring climate change, only the most rabid denialist would claim that ocean acidification is a good thing.

LL re: apathy, I think this is essentially Schneider's point - to help people make decisions that are to their benefit anyway. A bit patronising and paternalistic perhaps, but the end may justify the means and it's hardly a radical idea (eg mandatory pension contributions, age limits on smoking). So it's only a matter of where one thinks the line should be drawn...

EliRabett said...

Basically what Schneider suggested is done all the time within building codes. Think low volume toilets and various wiring/plumbing rules.

Anonymous said...

"And even ignoring climate change, only the most rabid denialist would claim that ocean acidification is a good thing."

Well where is the evidence that this is happening and at a rate-of-change that matters?

Where is the evidence for catastrophic-global warming or that a bit of warming is a bad thing in an ice age.

And where is the evidence that it is the anti-alarmists that are in denial.

You see the whole thing is a complete crock.

And if we are to use compulsion it ought to be for things that are real and BAD.

Whereas CO2 and human-induced warming are good things and obviously so.


EliRabett said...

GMB's ignorance is primarily his or her problem. If GMB is going around spouting this nonsense, then in a sense it becomes our problem. GMB might take a look at this article

"Acidifying the ocean is particularly detrimental to organisms that secrete shell material made of CaCO3, such as coral reefs and a type of phytoplankton called coccolithophorids [Kleypas et al., 1999]. The ocean pH change will persist for thousands of years. Because the fossil fuel CO2 rise is faster than natural CO2 increases in the past, the ocean will be acidified to a much greater extent than has occurred naturally in at least the past 800,000 years [Caldeira and Wicket, 2003]."

and follow the links to the original work. OTOH a general chemistry course might be useful also.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Google Scholar could be your friend on ocean acidifcation and many other subjects, Graeme. Generally you shouldn't expect to find a great deal of interest in spoon-feeding information to the more retro varieties of denialist.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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James Annan said...

If GMB is going around spouting this nonsense, then in a sense it becomes our problem.

Agreed. GMB, I don't mind the occasional oddball comment, but ignorant ranting is not welcome here.

Anonymous said...

spectra of fluorescents, for comparison if you like:

Our low-blue evening reading light, now:

typical CFL:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

You keep this up Annan your reputation will be seriously damaged.

I've getting less and less sympathy for you 'GOOD GERMANS' every day.

You are on the wrong side of these controversies and you should show a little more moxie.

Anonymous said...

Oh, if anyone's building LED lighting, here's a typical white emitter spectrum -- blue phosphor obviously the basis for it:

Here's the only white LED I know of with a spectrum suitable for low-blue evening light; based on a green phosphor, likely made in China someone told me.
Zexstar L5WWE1

Anonymous said...

James, that went to a search "all" instead of "recent". Out of pity, a link with one more button click already in it, for a shorter and less scary list of reading answering the question asked:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Would you climate scientists PLEASE tr ynot to meddle with things you don't understand, such as economics.