Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Banning the bulb - the information critique

I'd noted a few problems with banning incandescent lightbulbs. First, we can't be sure that one bulb is really friendlier than another without very comprehensive information on how they're manufactured; second, where New Zealand's ETS has things roughly right, at least when it comes to power generation, it's pretty hard to make a case for banning lightbulbs.

Bryan Walker notes a couple of studies suggesting that the cheaper-to-run bulbs are also friendlier to manufacture:
However I had a look to see what I could find, and came across this assessment of CFLs from a writer initially inclined to be sceptical about them, and this report on LEDs. It doesn’t look to be an issue.
A commenter at Offsetting found this one too.

I've no particular dog in this fight; if CFLs and LEDs are friendlier to manufacture, so much the better. But I'm still not sure that it's actually knowable. For example, Bryan's first link provides this table:

Here's a summary of the embodied energy in a light bulb (all numbers represent energy in kWh):
CFLIncandescent8 Incandescent bulbs
Glass0.170.110.88
Plastic0.6800
Electronics0.6600
Brass0.180.181.44
Operation*12060480
Recycle**1.6900
Total123.3860.29482.32
* This assumes the CFL bulb operates for 8000hrs and the incandescent bulb operates for 1000hrs
** This assumes that the energy required to recycle a CFL bulb is equal to its production 

Let's think about the plastics in the CFL and assume that the table has everything right about the direct energy costs of making plastic. But what about the energy costs of the machines that had to be bought to make the plastics? What about the costs of the machines that made those machines? We'd need to know everything about all the materials that go into all of the pieces of equipment that make the machines that make the machines that make plastics, and then everything involved in the materials used in making that prior set of machines, and so on all the way back.

Read Leonard Reed's I, Pencil. If a pencil's that hard to figure out, an LED bulb isn't going to be easier.

That's just the information problem on the supply side. What about heterogeneous customer demand based on their having very different uses for lightbulbs in different places? In large parts of the country in large parts of the year, waste heat from incandescent bulbs is not waste. It's just a less efficient way of partially heating your house. When I spend a dollar in power heating my house with my lightbulbs, I'm wasting about fifty cents if my heat pumps are twice as efficient as radiant heat; I'm not wasting the whole dollar. I don't want CFL bulbs in some outlets because they take just too long to wake up and provide light; in other spots in the house, it doesn't matter if it takes a couple of minutes to get useful lighting levels. A ban says there is no possible reason for a consumer to prefer an incandescent bulb that can outweigh the difference in power cost, and that just isn't true.

Walker continues:
Crampton’s second point was that an ETS which is functioning well removes the need for any regulatory interference in the market. “If power prices incorporate carbon charges via the ETS, then there’s no real economic case for pushing consumers to choose bulbs they don’t want.” He goes on to say that if the ETS isn’t producing the desired effect the answer is to improve the ETS, not make piecemeal interventions. It crossed my mind when I was writing the post that if the ETS was functioning at a level designed to drastically reduce carbon emissions there mightn’t be a need to bemoan the Government’s action on incandescents. But it is not functioning at that level, and the Government seems determined to ensure that it never will, or will only so far in the future as to be much too late.
If the ETS is broken and unfixable, then you can start making second-best cases for all kinds of stuff. But I'd thought it was least broken when it came to electricity generation.

But should New Zealand's ETS really go beyond that which everybody else is doing? "Drastically reduce" seems a pretty tough standard. Maybe it's the right one if everybody does it at the same time and agrees to be bound by it, but surely NZ going it alone in pushing for drastic reductions does a lot more to ruin the NZ economy than to delay global warming; we'd have to expect the rest of the world to be remarkably strongly swayed by New Zealand's example to expect otherwise. And that's just not going to happen so long as the mess in Europe and the looming potential economic mess in China are the headlines.

Walker continues:
Reining in carbon emissions has become a matter of high urgency, far outweighing concerns about government intervention in the economy. For that matter the ETS itself is an intervention, designed in its original intention to make markets assume the environmental costs which left to themselves they ignore. I see no reason why it should not be accompanied by other government directives which ensure that markets are not permitted to operate in areas that clearly slow the transition to a decarbonised economy.  We accept government mandates in many parts of the economy such as the compulsory insulation of new buildings and we rue failures in regulation such as allowed the emergence of leaky buildings.
Banning incandescents does not to my mind invoke the spectre of a centrally planned economy. It’s simply part of boundary setting for markets to operate within, a proper function of government and one buttressed by the urgency of the climate crisis.
The terms of the argument I think here have shifted a bit. First, my critique of lightbulb banning wasn't that it was interventionist; rather, that it was a worse regulation than having a working ETS. If the ETS were working correctly, there would be no efficiency case for banning lightbulbs; I'm not even convinced that there is a case for banning lightbulbs given the problems in our actual ETS.

I was hardly making the case that banning bulbs leads to a centrally planned economy. Rather, the knowledge requirements for assessing whether a ban is desirable and being really sure about it aren't far from the knowledge required to make central planning feasible.

If we want a shot at drastic reductions, though, we could do well to take another tack entirely. The ETS imposes some costs on the economy. Not huge ones, but they're real. Ditch the ETS and pour money into ag biotech research into improved pastoral systems for low methane; provide a free licence for anyone to use the resulting research. If it does nothing, then we've hastened global warming by maybe a day a century from now relative to NZ's having kept the ETS.* If it works, we substantially abate global agricultural methane emissions. A small country in the middle of nowhere with little influence might do better with the high variance play


* My baseline assumption here is that if New Zealand as a whole were shot into outer space tomorrow, with no further emissions of any kind, we'd at most delay whatever carbon concentration or temperature milestone we'd have otherwise achieved a century from now by at most two or three days. We're a pretty small dot.

17 comments:

  1. "A ban says there is no possible reason for a consumer to prefer an
    incandescent bulb that can outweigh the difference in power cost, and
    that just isn't true."
    For example, some people on the autism spectrum: http://publicaddress.net/system/cafe/onpoint-being-a-dick-about-earth-hour/?p=100138#post100138

    ReplyDelete
  2. We've been finding that the LED lights we had installed a few years ago aren't fit for purpose. The transformers keep overheating and the electrics are too fragile to withstand the aftershocks. So, the bulbs aren't lasting longer than incandescent ones, and we are probably going to have to replace the hardware. It doesn't seem to be a good use of money or non-renewable resources.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'd have had no clue about that one. But I know that my "make sure the prices are right and let people make their own choices" policy doesn't require me to know about that one, or the myriad other reasons folks might have for choosing one lighting source over another. But the "ban stuff" kinda requires that you know everything about everything. Hayek's pretence of knowledge critique looms large.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've been trying the hybrid ones where you buy a base and plug in a small halogen bit. Burned a pile out for not realising that the things are wrecked if you touch them in installing them; for others, the base unit won't fit in the socket because of flanges on the sides. Will give some LEDs a go know that I've found an online supplier that'll ship for $5 what here costs $100 (I can't believe the insane fixed costs of NZ sometimes). But I don't know what'll work best and I really value being able to experiment with it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very interested in where you can get an LED "bulb" for $5.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Did I miss something? how is it that this is low hanging fruit in a country with electricity generation largely sourced from 'renewables'. Given the profile of our energy generation banning these light bulbs would be the exact definition of a cynical gesture. I switched to them for cost savings but the failure rate is just too high (tried many brands). Bring on cheaper LED bulbs.
    PS
    You can add jerky making to the list of other uses not accounted for!

    ReplyDelete
  7. The marginal unit of electricity here often is coal rather than hydro, so differences in demand at the margin can matter. Even better if we switched from coal to fracked natural gas though.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Having just commented on the earlier post it seems superceded..
    I see now that you have chosen to focus on the energy and emission side,
    as you say " the "ban stuff" kinda requires that you know everything about everything"
    Still, as some commenters also bring out, this should surely first be put in an overall perspective..

    1. Energy saving is not the ONLY reason for buying a bulb - or anything else (cars, houses, electrical products) - you want to use!Forcing a given product to use less energy affects other parameters such as performance, usability, appearance and/or weight etc as well as price.See Ceolas.net which also has an extensive light bulb section.
    Turning to electricity:The first question is if NZ citizens should be forced to save electricity at all.If there is no society shortage, given the great use of renewable sources you mention, and new sources on top of that, it is surely debatable.If, in turn, they do have to use less electricity - especially from coal, also for emission reasons (CO2 relevance or not):Light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gasPower plants might, and might notIf there is a problem - Deal with the problem
    The light bulbs are not banned for being dangerous.They are banned to save electricity
    If saving electricity is such a big deal for NZ, then the electricity - or the coal used - could be taxed= let people themselves decide how to use the electricity they pay for, again given that incandescent lighting, like all lighting, has its advantages!Even if the bulbs had to be targeted, they could themselves be taxed, such that NZ gov directly makes money (unlike from a ban) while "people not just hit by taxes" in that some money could go to lower the price of alternatives.Taxation still unjustified, compared to market competition measures as referenced (support new alternatives to market but without continuing subsidies) - but preferable for all sides, compared to bans.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Having commented on your former post I saw this, and further comments seem problematic.
    = more extensive answers to this on your old post , depending on what shows up here

    ReplyDelete
  10. I commented on your former post before I saw this, and further comments seem problematic.
    More extensive answers to this on your old post , depending on what shows up here

    ReplyDelete
  11. I see you are focusing on energy use and emissions, fair enough,
    but one should perhaps consider the overall situation first...


    1. Energy saving is not the ONLY reason for buying a bulb - or anything else (cars, houses, electrical products) - you want to use!
    Forcing a given product to use less energy affects other parameters such as performance, appearance and/or weight etc as well as price.
    See Ceolas.net which also has an extensive light bulb section.


    Turning to electricity:
    The first question is if NZ citizens should be forced to save electricity at all.
    If there is no society shortage, given the great use of renewable sources you mention, and new sources on top of that, it is surely debatable.
    If, in turn, they do have to use less electricity - especially from coal, also for emission reasons (CO2 relevance or not):
    Light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gas
    Power plants might, and might not
    If there is a problem - Deal with the problem


    The light bulbs are not banned for being dangerous.
    They are banned to save electricity


    If saving electricity is such a big deal for NZ,
    then the electricity - or the coal used - could be taxed
    = let people themselves decide how to use the electricity they pay for, again given that incandescent lighting, like all lighting, has its advantages!


    Even if the bulbs had to be targeted, they could themselves be taxed, such that NZ gov directly makes money (unlike from a ban) while "people not just hit by taxes" in that some money could go to lower the price of alternatives.
    Taxation still unjustified, compared to market competition measures (support new alternatives to market but without continuing subsidies) - but preferable for all sides, compared to bans.

    ReplyDelete
  12. 2. The Actual energy/emission saving of switching light bulbs



    Keeping the correct Focus:
    The savings for individuals are less for many reasons, that won't take up here, but includes the heat issue you mention, CFL/LED power factors (not same as power rating) and much else.
    What is important for Society is in any case not a Big Brother concern of what Johnny saves in switching his bedroom bulb, but what Society saves from a Society law, assuming - as covered - such measures are appropriate in the first place.


    And the savings are negligible....see other comment links for source references.
    "The total reduction in energy use would be 0.54 x 0.8 x 0.76% = 0.33%,
    This figure is almost certainly an overestimate,
    particularly as the inefficiency of conventional bulbs generates heat which supplements other forms of heating in winter.
    Which begs the question: is it really worth it?
    Politicians are forcing a change to a particular technology which is fine for some applications but not universally liked, and which has disadvantages.
    The problem is that legislators are unable to tackle the big issues of energy use effectively, so go for the soft target of a high profile domestic use of energy
    ... ..This is gesture politics."
    Cambridge University Science Network on the EU ban, similarly for USA etc given the references, and no doubt similar NZ and elsewhere too.
    - but that is far from all...

    ReplyDelete
  13. OK this Disqus thing doesnt work for the other comments, they just disappear, though I tried altering, shortening, cutting links etc

    You should anyway be aware that the whole "emission saving" hypothesis is thrown out the window by how coal plants actually work, even newer so-called cycling ones, that besides have less emissions
    - continually ignored by politicians, along with much else as per comments on your other post (if THOSE comments are still there, sigh).

    ReplyDelete
  14. If true, another reason to prefer a straight carbon tax to bans on particular kinds of lightbulbs.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Some useful technical analysis and extensive discussion here:
    http://sound.westhost.com/articles/incandescent.htm
    [just one page from the index above]

    NB that he finds figures of 1kWh to manufacture an incandescent lamp also claimed 4kWh for a CFL but disputes the latter, suggesting higher; -unspecified reference,
    (without the "operation" costs; - life hours claimed also disputed & refuted)

    Plus, the dismal ~ 0.5 power factor, which means the electricity supply utility has to be able to supply about twice what you're charged for... & that they can't be used in enclosed fittings, or, generally, with dimmers...

    Because, while somewhat more 'efficient' (and the equivalences also overstated!) they still throw away over 90% as heat, say 92% - vs 97-98% for incandescant with a perfect 1.0 power factor - but that heat is in the electronics behind the bulb, (contributing to an early failure, especially in an enclosed fitting!) and not going in to the room below...

    Plus the catastrophic failures, illustrated, the dangers thereof, the hazards for landfill (no saving unless recycled) and inconvenience of slow start time - many people might simply leave them on - and danger in wet/humid areas, the appalling conditions in Chinese factories, and so on...

    One might wonder if communist countries are subtly selling this vrap to the West!

    [OK, so the V key is next to the C key ... :=}))]

    But please, spare us from starry-eyed technically uninformed greenies (with a 'useful idiot' red center?!) and ignorant lazy feel-good-do-it politicicians all too happy to rule... to 'make a difference', 'improve society', & etc. !!!

    Please read the full document, and even then go back to the index:
    http://sound.westhost.com/lamps/index.html


    The topic of lamps simply won't go away, and I have recently done
    some further measurements and tests on alternatives. The page discussing
    CFLs has been pretty popular, and has become so large to become
    unwieldy, so it's now in the process of being split into different
    sections. Because of the latest advances in LED lamps, they are also
    covered in their own sections in the pages that follow.


    It is becoming very clear that the CFL is not only an interim
    product, but has many flaws that will severely limit its usefulness in
    the long term. Essentially, and in the not-too-distant future, CFLs will
    have to compete with LED lamps that have far greater life, are at least
    as efficient, but don't have anywhere near as many problems. Recycling
    is simplified (no mercury), and the ability to operate at very low
    temperatures with instant full brightness and zero ultra-violet
    radiation will make LEDs the lamp of choice for many applications where
    CFLs are simply unsuitable.


    The humble incandescent lamp still has its uses though, and
    hopefully governments the world over will realise that it is impractical
    (and just plain stupid) to place an arbitrary ban on them just because
    they are less efficient than other forms of lighting. In quite a few
    applications, there are exactly zero alternatives to incandescent lamps, and the sooner this is recognised the better.


    In addition, there are minimum energy performance standards being
    imposed that are of sometimes dubious benefit, and in Australia it was
    even proposed (by bureaucrats) that required that the laws of physics be
    rewritten to accommodate their goals.

    ReplyDelete