Being Green Is Not a Sign of Health


There are two new reports in the Wall Street Journal about flops in the green energy movement — further illustrations of how much hype there is in it.

The first (Jan. 19) reveals that the vaunted new “amazingly energy efficient,” compact fluorescent light bulbs aren’t so energy efficient after all.

Pushing the hapless consumer to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) has been the received wisdom among lawmakers for years, and no more so than in California, the ever-green state. California’s utilities alone spent $548 million over the past seven years in CFL subsidies. In fact, California utilities have subsidized over 100 million CFLs since 2006. And on the first of this year, the state started phasing out incandescent bulb sales.

Of course, when I say that the California utilities have been subsidizing the CFLs, I really should say that the aforementioned hapless consumers have been doing so, because all the subsidy money — about $2.70 out of the actual $4.00 cost of the CFL, i.e., more than two thirds of the actual cost — is paid by the consumer in the form of higher utility rates.

Naturally, the rest of the country — and, for that matter, the world — is set to follow California’s lead on CFLs. A federal law effective January 1 of next year will require a 28% step-up in efficiency for incandescent bulbs, and bans them outright by 2014. One consequence of this federal policy — unintended, perhaps, but none the less foreseeable — is that the last US plant making incandescent bulbs has been shut down, and China (which now makes all the CFLs) has seen even more of a jobs expansion, and is able to buy even more of our debt.

The UN is also pushing CFLs to help solve global warming, estimating that about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are caused by lighting. The World Bank has been funding the distribution of CFLs in poorer nations. Last year, for example, Bangladesh gave away five million World Bank funded CFLs in one day.

But now — surprise! — California has discovered that the actual energy savings of switching to CFLs were nowhere near what was originally estimated. Pacific Gas and Electric, which in 2006 set up the biggest subsidy fund for CFLs, found that its actual savings from the CFL program were collectively about 450 million kilowatt hours, which is only about one-fourth of the original estimate.

There are several reasons for the fact the switch to CFLs hasn’t lived up to expectations. First, not as many of the heavily subsidized CFLs were sold as originally estimated. PG & E doesn’t say why, but I will hazard a guess, based on personal experience. Many consumers dislike the light produced by CFLs, which they find dimmer or more artificial in its effect. Also, many complain that lights create static in AM radio reception. In a free market (i.e., one that, among other things, contains no subsidies), it is likely that few consumers would want to switch.

Surprise! — California has discovered that the actual energy savings of switching to compact fluorescent lamps were nowhere near what was originally estimated.

Second, the useful life of the CFLs is less than 70% of original estimates. Amazingly, the estimates were based on tests that didn’t factor in the actual frequency with which consumers turn them on and off. CFLs burn out more quickly the more often they are turned on and off than do the old incandescent bulbs.

Not mentioned in the story is the fact that CFLs contain mercury, and so are supposed to be specially disposed of (which presents an added cost to the consumer in time, money, and energy). The alternative is for the consumer to throw them out in the regular trash, making toxic waste sites out of ordinary trash dumps, with future clean-up costs of God only knows what.

The second Journal story (Jan. 18) reports that Evergreen Solar has closed its Massachusetts plant and laid off all the workers there.

This is deliciously ironic. Evergreen Solar was the darling of Massachusetts. Governor Deval Patrick, devout green and all-around Obama Mini-Me, gave Evergreen a package of $58 million in tax incentives, grants, and other handouts to open a solar panel plant there. In doing so, he simply ignored Evergreen’s lousy track record — a record of losing nearly $700 million bucks in its short life (its IPO was in 2000), despite lavish subsidies from federal and state governments.

Now Evergreen is outsourcing its operations, blaming competition with China, and whining like a bitchslapped baby about China’s subsidies of its solar energy and its lower labor costs. But Evergreen has itself sucked up ludicrously lavish subsidies, and it knew all along about China’s labor rates compared to Massachusetts’.

So Patrick winds up looking like a complete ass, and the taxpayers of Massachusetts wind up eating a massive loss.

But that’s not all. Near the end of last year, the Journal (Dec. 20) revealed still another case of American crony capitalism, of the green sort. It turns out that the wind industry — aptly dubbed “Big Wind” — copped a one-year, $3 billion extension of government support for wind power. It was part of the end-of-2010 tax deal.

Originally, this government subsidy was a feature of the infamous 2008 stimulus bill, under which taxpayers were forced to cover 30% of the costs of wind power projects. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) begged for the subsequent bailout, because without it 20,000 wind power jobs would be lost (one-fourth of all such jobs in America). But despite the billions in subsidies, Big Wind is sucking wind; its allure is dropping like a stone. The AWEA’s own figures show a 72% decline in wind turbine installations from 2009, down to the lowest since 2006.

Besides trying to make the 30% subsidy(!) permanent, the AWEA is pushing for a national “renewable energy” mandate that will force utilities to buy a large chunk of the power they sell from renewable sources (mainly solar and wind), irrespective of the fact that the price of renewable energy is sky high. The association has gotten more than half the states to enact such mandates, with higher energy bills for consumers as the result. Not surprisingly, Big Wind is also pushing the EPA to make energy from fossil fuels vastly more costly.

According to the federal government’s own figures, wind and solar take 20 times the subsidy to produce electricity than do coal and natural gas. So you can see why Big Wind keeps blowing smoke up the public’s rear about the fabulous future of renewable energy. You can also see why Big Wind is such a big contributor to the campaign coffers of Democratic politicians. They are the only ones who keep this outrageous boondoggle awash in money.

Meanwhile, the promises of green energy look more and more hollow, every day.

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Gary Jason

Just a few brief responses to Mr. Lofstrom's thoughtful comments.

1. I am certainly aware that there are better lighting technologies than the century-old incandescent bulb. But I also think that whenever a better technology comes along (one that is decisively and demonstrably better than the existing technology), consumers will embrace it voluntarily and enthusiastically.
The problem here is the the government is coercing people to adopt a technology with which they obviously have not been impressed. Worse, the people are discovering that the advantages touted as a justification that coercion are exaggerated.
I think both Mr. Lofstrom and I agree on the main point here, which is --as he so nicely puts it-- "...there must be a real market with believable economic signals of user preference." Indeed, sir.

2. I concur (and have noted in some of my prior writings for Liberty) that there are problems with obtaining rare earth materials, which complicate not only the search for high-quality CFLs, but green energy programs such as solar power, electric cars, and wind power. His remarks are very informative here. And we both seem to agree that new large-scale nuclear plants are the best available solution to replacing fossil fuel sources.
I am not so sure I share his enthusiiasm for solar power collected in space and transferred to earth. This seems to me to be as speculative as fusion power, another prospect that is feasible in theory and may or may not be cost-effective in practice. By all means the research and development should proceed. But I wouldn't let the possible best be the enemy of the existing good.
We should immediately dramatically upgrade and expand our system of nuclear power plants, aiming at deriving 90% of our electricity from it within thirty years. If space solar or fusion or any other kind of sweet technology of the future proves capable of the reliable production of huge amounts of electricity our country needs, we can just cease building the nukes and build the new stuff.

3. A point of disagreement between us and Mr. Lofstrom's contention that, "This planet was not designed to carry billions of people living at first-world consumption levels." First of all, in my view this planet wasn't "designed" at all. It is a natural environment within which a moderately rational species--homo spaiens sapiens--evolved naturally.
Second, and more importantly, I see not the least reason this planet cannot support the present population, or even double it, at first-world levels of consumption, clean air and water, if we just let markets work and people be free. Mind you, I am not saying I want double the people. I see no optimal number of people for the planet--be it half a billion, a billion, 6 billion or 12 billion. I am more concerned that people be free to have children or not as they see fit, as opposed to what some government or some group of environmentalist reliegious zealots tells them.
With just the technologies proven to work on a large scale--nuclear, natural gas, petrolem, and so on--supporting all people at first-world level is quite possible. And with the new technologies the mind of man will inevitably bring us, it will be even easier. The only barriers to this are the pointless ones constructed by governments and religious zealots, mostly of the green variety.

Keith Lofstrom

"All revolutions evaporate, and leave in their wake the slime of a new bureaucracy" - Kafka

The government can turn any good idea into a bad one. Energy does good, and increasing energy efficiency frees more energy to do more good. Higher efficiency lighting can save money and energy, increase safety, and give consumers more control of their visual environment. Or it can be done very badly, creating stress, pollution, and enormous expense.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are not created equal. The cheap garbage at Home Depot is made with inferior, temperature-sensitive electronics, and burns out quickly. Bulbs from Ikea and Panasonic (no longer available in the US, sigh) last a lot longer - partly because they come to full brightness more slowly. These minute-to-full-brightness bulbs behave differently than incandescents, sure. But after a year of adaptation, incandescent behavior becomes the anomaly. We don't consider incandescents inferior because they don't match the behavior of gas lamps and candles, do we?

Even the best CFLs are inferior to the latest developments in long-tube fluorescent fixtures. Electronic ballast T8 and T5 fixtures are more than twice as efficient, last longer, have better color spectra, don't flicker, and are instant on. Fixtures using the new DALI electronic ballast control standard allow them to be dimmed from 10% to 100%, controlled by computer, wired on a common circuit, save even more energy and last even longer.

New fluorescent tube designs such as Philips Alto increase life and reduce the mercury to a tiny fraction of previous tubes, and even if the tubes are thrown out rather than recycled, the mercury released is a tiny fraction of the mercury that goes up the smokestack of a coal power plant to power incandescents.

The biggest problem with long tube fluorescents is that the fixtures are ugly, and they remind us of long boring days in school. But look again - decorative fixtures are out there, and artists working with engineers could design fixtures far more attractive (and light efficient) than any on the market today. For this to happen, though, there must be a real market with believable economic signals of user preference. Let's hope that develops before the bureaucrats stifle the options with their rules and "guidelines".

One alternative that the "watermelon greens" (green on the outside, red on the inside) get wrong is LED lighting. Expensive and very bad for the environment, While LED lights operate cleanly, they are less efficient and wear out far faster than advocates claim, because they are often overdriven to get the maximum light from very expensive LED chips. This makes them dimmer and less efficient over time, with lifetimes far less than promised. The BIG problem with LED lights is the provenance of their materials - extremely toxic mines in China. The rare-earth materials used to make LEDs occur in nature combined with some really nasty stuff, like radioactive thorium.

We had such rare-earth mines in the US and Australia and elsewhere, but they were shut down because the materials extracted were not as valuable as the land destroyed by their pollution. Some are starting up again, using new technologies to confine the pollution and improve extraction efficiency. Improving these mines and transforming them into tolerable neighbors is an engineering problem, not a political one.

Scale up from tiny LEDs to the large motors in electric cars. The most efficient and lightweight motors are made with magnets using more than half a pound of neodymium, coming from those same dirty Chinese mines. The communist government in China uses its monopoly on rare earths to force higher "chinese made content" in LEDs and electric cars (typically lowering quality), and also uses its monopoly as a weapon to achieve diplomatic goals. It is big news when Russia cuts natural gas supplies to Europe (used to power the grid when the windmills are idle) to enforce foreign policy objectives. When China does the same with neodymium, the news is buried in engineering trade journals, although the diplomatic consequences are higher.

Green generation is also hampered by politics. Gary Jason's article does not mention it, but the problems with windmills are rooted in the behavior of wind - it doesn't blow when and where you need energy, and it can blow harder than the generators can tolerate. Because wind blows at night when power demand is lowest, and because new power transmission lines can take 15 years to study and permit and build (thank you, bureaucrats!) wind generators in Oregon spin uselessly, heating resistors in the desert rather than powering peak consumer demand. And peak wind gusts wear out generator bearings quickly - the windmills must be disassembled and repaired on an average 7 year cycle, rather than the lifetimes of 20 years or more promised by advocates. Oh, and those generators use huge amounts of neodymium. China and pollution again. See this essay on wind energy for more.

Wind power is a great way to do some things - pump water, recharge remote batteries, etc. It is a ridiculous way to power civilization. Only a government green could love it.

Done right, green is an opportunity for free individuals to explore surprising new ideas. Megawatt-scale mass produced fourth generation nuclear is far greener than any other alternatives - and of course the "greens" hate it, and hamstring the innovative young companies developing it.

Solar photovoltaic is enormously expensive and destroys habitat, but stratospheric areostat solar collectors, if proven feasible, will use little ground area and provide high efficiency, low cost, 24x7 power at industrial scale.

The big opportunity, long term, is power collected and used in space. The sun generates trillions of times as much energy as our entire civilization consumes, and sends most of it out into empty space, uselessly. Harnessing this energy "the NASA way" would be enormously expensive and polluting, but private, non-government-funded entrepreneurs are discovering the ways this may be done right. I am one of those entrepreneurs, see the server-sky website for more.

This planet was not designed to carry billions of people living at first-world consumption levels. Although government greens are hypnotized by CO2, there are some difficult global-scale environmental problems to solve, and both government and government-favored big businesses are ignoring them. You can read about the real problems, and some solutions, in Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline". Brand styles himself a "turquoise", a free-market green, and his book is surprising, informative, and hopeful.

It is too soon to say what will work and what won't. Most superficially plausible ideas will fail, and some surprisingly weird ones will transform the planet. If millions of inventors and entrepreneurs are free to experiment, contend, and compete, the market will select the winners, freeing the losers to try something else.

If we can bypass the government noise machine, there are some real opportunities to create real wealth, transforming the planet into a life-filled garden inhabited by peaceful, prosperous, and free people. The false dichotomies created by government - growth or sustainability - will vanish when we engage the creative talents of billions, rather than suppress them. Uncontrolled, exuberant, surprising innovation will never create a utopia, but it can create a better future if government focuses on its minimal but vital judicial role, and otherwise gets out of the way.


Slightly off-topic but related:
The recent Wilson Quarterly has an article on the supposed 'proven economic' benefits of urban trees. Yep, trees.
There's a screen-shot of a web-site illustrating the economic benefits, with big numbers. Until you read part way down: "Benefits of trees do not account for the costs associated with trees' long-term care and maintenance". Nor, I presume the removal costs.
"Economic studies" which examine income and ignore costs will probably be a large feature of tonight's annual lies from the President, but they really don't mean much.

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