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Green (Fri)Day: Shedding Light on the Issue

Lighting accounts for just over a fifth of energy use in the US.

Lighting accounts for just over a fifth of energy use in the US.
Fast Company gave compact fluorescent light bulbs the star treatment back in September ’06, and by now it’s common knowledge that they save both energy and money compared to traditional incandescents. Wal-Mart pledged to sell 100 million of the bulbs in 2007, and did it in just 9 months, with the estimated impact of taking 700,000 cars off the road, or saving the energy to power 450,000 single-family homes.

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But the incandescent isn’t dead yet. And the CFL may not be the last word in energy efficient light.

CFLs may be king in offices, big box stores and institutional settings, but when was the last time you came across them in a fine restaurant or fancy boutique? And almost no-one I know has switched to 100% CFLs at home.

In an attempt to address this, “Green Lantern” Brendan Koerner wrote a great column in Slate this week addressing two common knocks on CFLs–fears about their mercury content, and concerns about light quality.

CFLs contain on average four milligrams of highly toxic mercury. (Wal-Mart is pushing the major manufacturers to lower this average to two). Individually, Koerner points out, safe disposal of a broken bulb is relatively easy.

On a national basis, though, recycling is difficult, expensive, and currently captures only about 25% of all bulbs–and as this Wall Street Journal article points out, we don’t really know where the “recycled” mercury is going. Mercury from the US often is sold to artisanal mines in countries like Brazil and Tanzania, where it is used in amalgamation of gold, often resulting in its release into the environment once again. In fact, gold mining is the second largest source of mercury emissions from humans.

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However, combustion, especially in coal-fired power plants, is by far the largest source of mercury emissions–65% in the US. So by using an energy-saving CFL, you may reduce emissions over the long run.

As for light quality, I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Popular Mechanics recently rated 7 CFLs and they all outperformed a 75-watt incandescent. The best was the N:Vision Soft White, sold at Home Depot. It sounds like you shouldn’t get your CFLs from the dollar store if you want good performance–my bad.

The next acronym in energy efficient lighting may be LED. A few weeks ago I spoke to the CEO of Lamina, a company that claims to be making the brightest, most compact LED “light engines” around–ones that can truly replace CFLs and incandescents. Their secret is a superior method to cool the lamps so they can be clustered close together. The LEDs last about six years in continuous operation, twice as long as CFLs. Of course, you can’t put an LED engine in your existing lamps and fixtures, so their main market has been retail and offices. But in January, Lamina partnered with a German utility to market them to consumers in Europe.

“The industry has grown up,” Shinneman told me. “It’s very fast–power is increasing all the time.”