Edison Had it Right: Save the Light Bulb!

“Edison created a time-tested light bulb that is still the best option for its price,” Brandston said. “Consumer choice is an all-American right. The government has created a light bulb cartel, has crammed the CFL down our throats and the citizens have no antitrust protection.”

That’s renowned light designer Howard Brandston speaking a little truth to the not-so-bright powers that be regarding the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). I despise the light bulb ban. CFLs are ugly and expensive, their light is poor, they make me not want to read, and they’ve required me to buy all new light fixtures. But these are minor complaints. Here are three absolutely true arguments against the incandescent light bulb ban, in descending order of my disgust:

First, the effort to ban the incandescent light bulb wasn’t all human goodwill and love of the environment. The ban was the result of a hardcore lobbying effort waged by those who stood to benefit. This included General Electric and other bulb manufacturers. Compared to incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive and carry higher profit margins. And their benefits, like Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Second, CFLs are not clean energy. They are dirty. They contain mercury, and although I’m sure all of us good people are following the EPA’s instructions (insert EPA joke here) to dispose of CFLs with a dedicated recycler, the truth is most CFLs end up in the landfill, where the mercury is just going to accumulate.

Third and finally, this ban is the small and meaningless, which I despise. A ban on light bulbs? Energy conservation has its value, but its place is at the level of the consumer. This is not a job for the federal government, which has bigger things to do. These energy standards, I’m afraid to say, are a waste of energy. They serve as a convenient excuse for lazy members of congress not to take the big, bold steps that need to happen. Of course, the number of pea-sized brains in congress would make a dinosaur blush. So we are left with bans on light bulbs, while our other environmental challenges (other challenges? says member of congress) are ignored.

Look, goodwill gestures have their place. It’s why you buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts, recycle your newspaper, or run a 5k to support a local charity when you already  run that far every other day for free. These things are all good thing for you to do. These are not things that need to be dictated to you by congress. I can take care of my own light bulbs, thank you, just like you can recycle your own glass. You and I can’t, however, do a lot to clean up a power plant’s mercury emissions, or prevent some mining company from blasting the top off a mountain. Yet it’s our habits, our choices, that draw the attention of congress.

You know, we pay for this government. But like the CFL bulb, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Hat tip Instapundit on the story linked at top.

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Enviro Quick Hits

Working on a number of long posts. In the meantime, enjoy these environmental news quick posts:

Environmental regulators at work (via Drudge Report): Business Gets $4,000 Fine for a Missing Trashcan Lid

Kicking our butts in the solar game: Germany’s Solar Power Use Jumps 50 Percent

Someone else wondering why we let sewage flow into our rivers: Fecal Matters

Paul Greenberg on our mistreatment of the American oyster: An Oyster in the Storm

An answer is only as good as the question: Pennsylvania Agency Didn’t Mention Water Pollution Near Fracking Site Because No One Asked

The Latest Entry in the Wind Farm Wars

It was only a few weeks ago that Simon Chapman called shenanigans on all the noise about wind turbines making people ill. Well not so fast Simon.

Wind farm noise causes “clear and significant” damage to  people’s sleep and mental health, according to the first full peer-reviewed scientific study of the problem.

Contra Mr. Chapman’s claim that anti-wind farm activists were the source of all the imaginary wind turbine-induced maladies, the authors of this new science say their findings “show [a] clear relationships between wind farms and “important clinical indicators of health, including sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and mental health”.”

We all know this won’t be the last entry in the wind farm wars. For now, I’m not taking sides. I’ll just try my best to keep you updated on where the fight stands.

 

 

What Hath Obama Wrought? (A eulogy for solar power)

In February 2009, a newly sworn in President Obama and a democratic-party-packed congress approved an $831 billion economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to respond to the recession. A prominent feature of the stimulus bill was a planned infusion of $90 billion into the green energy sector. This $90 billion, in the form of tax credits, direct loans, and other incentives went to support clean energy technology, energy conservation, mass transit projects, and other programs. Of course, the most well-known part of this green stimulus was the government loan program for solar power and electric vehicle industries. President Obama was directing a green energy industrial policy with the goal of giving the United States a clean energy future.

We now know that his attempt at green industrial policy has failed.

Was it ineptitude? Poor planning? Pressure to spend the money that led to sloppy investment decisions? Was the failure an outright example of government graft and cronyism? Is it possible, given the complexities of modern industrial nations, that government simply isn’t capable of directing national economic policy of this magnitude?

Whatever the cause, it is the consequence, specifically for residential solar power, that I fear. I believe we are at a crossroads, a tipping point, for solar power in the United States. Prices for photovoltaics are dropping rapidly, and the pace of rooftop solar installations is gaining steam. Distributed solar capacity is expected to double from 3,536 megawatts in 2011 to 7,000 megawatts by the end of this year. I’m also following stories like this one pointing out that simply removing government red tape could dramatically reduce residential solar installation costs. Soon the price per kilowatt hour between solar and coal may reach parity, which many believe is the tipping point at which widespread adoption of residential solar will occur.

But will we get to this tipping point, given the inevitable political backlash against government-funded energy investment? Amongst our political class, who now is willing to support more spending for solar? I’ll go so far as to say that given the present political environment, the current 30% federal tax credit for residential solar is at real risk of expiring in 2016, if it is even allowed to last that long.

For solar supporters, casting blame does no good. I reckon the voters will hold Obama responsible at the polls. But win or lose, President Obama’s ability to pursue his green energy agenda is irredeemably compromised. Our best option now is to change the debate: we need to move beyond the failed stimulus approach and offer new ideas and new policies for achieving our solar goals. In death, we offer eulogies to praise the recently passed. Let us hope that the eulogy we may find ourselves offering is for the failed policies of one president, and not for our within-reach solar future.

Congratulations. You’ve Pissed Me Off.

This news from my former stomping grounds in Page, Ariz. is just lovely: High mercury lands Lake Powell fish on food alert list. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Striped bass from the southern reaches of Lake Powell, along with largemouth bass in Quail Creek Reservoir, have joined the list of Utah fish with mercury consumption advisories.

“We thought it was time to get the message out to people,” Amy Dickey of the Utah Division of Water Quality told the Statewide Mercury Work Group on Thursday, noting that methylmercury levels in Lake Powell’s stripers have hovered around the worrisome zone for several years.

With this first mercury warning for Lake Powell, one of the state’s most popular recreation spots, officials suggest pregnant women and children under 6 should eat no more than one 4-ounce serving per month.

Yes, just the pregnant women and children need to worry. Very comforting. Please tell me more:

“We’re not saying: don’t eat these fish,” he [Roger Wilson, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources] said. “We’re saying: eat according to the guidelines that have been issued” and that are kept up-to-date on the state’s mercury web page.

“Mind the eating guidelines” they say. For fresh caught fish, from a fresh water lake, with some of the cleanest water in the nation – other than the damn mercury, of course.

I lived beneath the stacks of the Navajo Generating Station for three years; I studied that coal-fired power plant like one would a painting. I looked at it from every angle – the poverty ridden Navajo who were employed by it, the environmentalists who despised it, the rural economy and downstream power consumers who depend on it. I could see the NGS plant, with all its ugliness and efficiency and necessity, from every perspective, and whenever I felt a little holier-than-thou about an environmental issue somewhere across the globe, I would stop and consider the complexities of NGS, and understand that the answers, while often clear to me, are far from simple to live by.

But Lake Powell is my lake. I spent three years working there as a park service employee, caring for that place, protecting it, promoting it, and deeply appreciating all my colleagues who were doing the same.

And now I feel betrayed.

Can British Engineers Produce Petrol from Air?

Via the ever-reliable Instapundit, I was awakened from my Friday cubicle-induced stupor by a report in The Telegraph that some blokes may have invented a technology that uses carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to create petrol, or fuel if you’re on the downwind side of the pond.

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

Experts tonight hailed the astonishing breakthrough as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against climate change and a saviour for the world’s energy crisis.

If true, this would be a game-changer; a technology that represents a leap forward in a current pattern of behavior. In this instance, a technology like the one described here could render obsolete our reliance on unstable and unfriendly oil regimes, overcome our stalled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn politics on its head (never underestimate how wedded politicians and bureaucrats are to the status quo).

Now, if you will indulge my soapbox for a moment please, I want to point out the following passages:

The £1.1m project, in development for the past two years, is being funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists who believe the technology could prove to be a lucrative way of creating renewable energy.

While the technology has the backing of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it has yet to capture the interest of major oil companies. (bold mine)

I want to make three political arguments: first, profit motivation is a powerful incentive for challenging the status quo, and can (and often does) lead to socially desireable outcomes; second, a free and open market-based economy is the only means of overcoming stale, state-protected, dominant industries; and third, the importance of allowing the investing class (the “evil rich”) to speculate in innovative technologies/industries without fear of suffering punitive taxation is essential to our shared desires for a better world.  The state will never be more efficient or effective at supporting new technologies than the free market.

Rooftop Revolution: Book Review

My first Free the Commons! book review is the Kindle edition of Danny Kennedy’s “Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save our Economy – and Our Planet – From Dirty Energy.” Rooftop Revolution’s author, Danny Kennedy, is the founder of Sungevity, a solar company that I consider to be innovative and unique. Mr. Kennedy is a social entrepreneur and clean energy activist and, being just about my age, I was very interested in what he had to say about rooftop solar.

Unfortunately, I found that Kennedy’s book failed on two big levels.

First, the positive: Kennedy does offer a lot of support for rooftop solar. Beyond the success of his own company – which he is not shy about promoting – he provided some solid fodder about the successful growth of the solar industry in general, and made a good effort to convince the reader that solar is competitive with other forms of energy. He offers some hope by describing the success of solar in Germany and Spain, where solar accounts for 25 and 35 percent (respectively, according to Kennedy) of total power consumption. If I were considering a business in the solar industry, I would take some encouragement from Kennedy’s book.

However, his failure as an author begins with what is notably absent from his book: any attempt to outline a real solution. Kennedy is a successful solar entrepreneur, and I approached his work looking for solutions to our solar problem. I had hoped, first and foremost, that Kennedy would offer some answers to arguably the biggest question about solar: how do we afford it?

I bought this book hoping to find a few new ideas about how we make rooftop solar widely affordable and therefore widely adopted. If solar is to become a major player in the energy market and ultimately replace our reliance on coal-based power, we need the cold-hearted truth about how much it will cost, and more importantly, how we make those costs palatable to the individual homeowner, the taxpayers, and society. My belief is that our current model for solar adoption – the one where we lazily provide a few tax credits and hope homeowners adopt rooftop solar due to home resale value or out of altruism – requires dramatic and revolutionary reconsideration. I wanted to read about that revolutionary model for putting solar on every house, and I didn’t get that from Rooftop Revolution.

My second big criticism of Kennedy’s book is that while I generally found the tone of his writing encouraging (hey, I’m about to open that business!), he counterbalanced any positive message with an antagonistic tale that I found discouraging, almost counter-productive, to the intent of his work.

Read the subtitle of his book to get an idea of what the content is like: Kennedy spends waaaayyy too much time in activist mode, leading a chorus of cheers against “dirty energy” and “King CONG,” (coal, oil, nukes and gas). His Greenpeace persona is out in full force not just in one chapter, which I could handle, but throughout his book. Demonizing the opposition, as Kennedy views the traditional energy industries and all their supporters, is a very poor way to advance your views and win converts. I found myself questioning some of his claims about subsidies and tax breaks for big energy, claims that should have had little to do with the book’s message but seemed to overwhelm all other content. His tone certainly interfered with any positive message the book did present.

My response to Kennedy and others is simple: We do not lack choir preachers; we need someone who can preach to the masses. The masses cast the votes, own the homes, spend the money, and ultimately are responsible for any rooftop revolution we hopefully experience. If what you’re after is making a big change, a big societal impact – if you are serious about planning a revolution – then you need to make a more compelling case for converting to solar. Kennedy failed to make this case, and because of that, I find that his book fails to advance the rooftop solar cause.