Monday, December 5, 2011

Electricity in Ecuador

While poking around the wide world web ahead of an upcoming trip to Ecuador, I found a slideshare showing ways electricity is used there. Love that the author shared the visual story.

She reports that a typical monthly power bill in the Amazon is $15 on an average salary of $250. I imagine that in a place with so much diversity in income and living conditions, averages just begin to shed light on how things are, yet they are still telling.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Turn Off, Replace, or Trudge Forward?

Buying newer more efficient appliances and lights is one easy way to achieve energy efficiency. But is it always the best choice?

Replacing appliances and things has an impact too. Something is going to happen to the old stuff, plus there are pocketbook and lifecycle costs associated with the replacement.

My last blog post encouraged people to replace incandescent Christmas lights with new LEDs. In response, JMR raised a really good question:
Thanks for the info Tamara. I think the energy savings of LED's are great... and I think there is going to be a lot of waste in the world if everyone throws out their holiday lights. How do you balance this need to limit energy consumption while equally limiting waste and unnecessary consumption.

I'd like to tackle a couple ways to look at this question of keep versus replace.

The first option is simply to do without Christmas lights. From a consumption or environmental point of view, going light-free is a hands down winner. That said, it's not for everybody. Instead of being the Party of No Fun, my hope is that people are drawn to all the "Yes, and" choices that are opening up because manufacturers are offering so many greener choices.

If you want lights, then I conclude that replacing is the better option from a money and environmental standpoint. The short version is that strands of lights don't produce much waste, the energy savings is significant (on the order of 70 - 90% improvement), and the replacement cost is small. Other situations are tougher -- Like should I replace my 10-year old, perfectly fine 27 mph car with a new or newer hybrid or all-electric?

For a lot of materials, the biggest lifecycle impact is in resource extraction and production. For those, the scale tips toward keeping them. In the case of the holiday lights, my understanding is that the bigger impact occurs during actual use, so the scale weighs toward replacing.

Do you agree? Disagree? I welcome people to share ideas around how they make sustainable choices. We could learn so much from each other.

Those who like short answers please STOP here.

If you are interested in the long, info-nerd version, then read on...

One could look at it thru a garbage lens. A bit of personal history you may not know is that I spent many years working in the waste arena and can talk in depth about US and Canadian waste prevention, recycling, commercial scale composting, incineration, energy recovery, landfill, transfer, and collection issues. I've been a regulator, a regulatee, an operations manager, an environmental manager, and a technical consultant/policy advisor. What we learned when creating state and local waste prevention and recycling programs and designing and retrofitting safer disposal sites offers useful lessons for today's efforts toward energy efficiency,alternative energy, and wise management of other energy sources.

Tossing perfectly functional lights is indeed wasteful. The bright side (no pun intended) is that the amount of waste is small and the material are not toxic. While the glass and metal components are technically recyclable, unfortunately there is no market for old light strands to make recycling happen.

Working lights could be donated to Goodwill or re-gifted, but it is reasonable to ask whether it is really better for the environment to shift the energy hog problem down the line to somebody else. Programs like Cash for Clunkers looked at the same problem for cars, and decided to take gas-guzzling polluters off the road once and for all. You can find similar incentives to put old energy-hogging refrigerators out of service too.

It took several hazardous components to make the lights, but those chemicals are pretty well bound up and will not produce measurable impacts as they take hundreds of years to degrade in a landfill. If they were to end up in an incinerator, the plastic portion would help by adding thermal content, but the metal would be released. A large portion of the metals will become bound to particulate matter, and, depending on the type of pollution control system, a large portion will become part of the non-hazardous bottom ash and a smaller potion will show up as hazardous fly ash. The glass becomes slag. Over time, slag builds up to be an expensive maintenance headache. In this case, the glass volume is too tiny to matter. There would be air emissions of metals and plastic components, but, again, they would be too small to measure.

Another way to compare the impact would be to estimate the environmental cost of kilowatts saved vs. kilowatts burned and compare that to the environmental cost of buying new lights plus disposal of the old ones. The best methodology for this is probably a combination of Lifecycle Assessment and looking up emissions factors. I did compile a comparison of Lifecycle Assessment Tools once, but there are people far better suited than me to actually perform the complicated analysis.

As far as non-emissions impacts of energy, one could consider that hydro damages rivers, commercial and non-commercial fisheries, and has other habitat impacts, and mining and transporting coal has large impacts as well. In one sense, the non-emissions impacts could be considered "sunk costs". In other words, the incremental energy difference associated with my lights won't change them because the damage was already done.

If that is true, then I could focus on emissions from using energy as the most relevant way to differentiate between keeping or replacing. Energy emissions factors vary depending on the energy mix where you live - In my area it is 48% coal and 52% hydro. As such my power has lower emissions than it would in places that are more fossil-fuel dependent. Even so, burning coal pollutes. It puts out CAPS (Common Air Pollutants) like Carbon Monoxide, Ground-level Ozone, Lead, Nitrogen Oxides, Particulate Matter, and Sulfur Dioxide, HAPS (Hazardous Air Pollutants) like Metals (Mercury, Arsenic, Chromium, Nickel, etc.) Volatile Organics, Acid Gases, and Greenhouse Gases.

There are pollution numbers associated with waste disposal, but there is not a way to relate a particular piece of waste to downstream emissions. I can confidently say that the numbers involved are very, very small, but I can't tell you what they are. Lifecycle analysis can shed light on the impacts of producing the new lights. The impacts are real, and should definitely be considered.

My best estimate is that the impacts of disposal and consumption are dwarfed by the ongoing impact of burning excess energy for this particular situation. That is not always the case though. Like JMR reminds us, asking whether to replace or to keep is always a good idea. For a lot of materials, the biggest lifecycle impact is in resource extraction and production. For such items, the scale would tip toward keeping it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sparkling Brightly & Efficiently

There is a super-easy way for the U.S. to reduce over 700 million KWh of electricity per year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 100,000 cars. Will you join me and thousands of friends and neighbors and make it happen?

It’s easy. Inexpensive. Festive.

Get rid of incandescent Christmas lights, and replace them with LEDs. Get friends and family to join you. With this simple step, you can still deck the halls with bright shiny things, save money, use energy wisely, and keep the planet happy. All at the same time.

LED Christmas lights really sparkle. You’ll be happy to learn that LED holiday lights come in more colors, shapes, and sizes than traditional lights. You can get minis, big ones (called C7 and C9 in trade lingo), wide-angles, globes, berries, nets, icicles, snowfalls and ropes. You can get all one color (Oh my, what a great color selection!), multi-color, even bulbs that change colors. If you have lots of incandescent light strings and cannot bear to get rid of them, you can replace burned out bulbs with LEDs, and still reduce power by 20%. There are pre-lit trees, wreaths, and reindeer. It’s like an LED Wonderland.

In addition to those perks, you’ll save money on your electric bill. Wonder how much you’ll save? Dominion Energy created a calculator to break it down based on lighting type and hours per day that the lights stay on. (It is based on their average cost of electricity of $0.10 per KWh. If you live in the Pacific Northwest like me, residential rates are closer to $0.085. That means that costs and savings will both be just a touch less than shown).

For example, if you used five 100-bulb strand icicle lights, five strands of the 25-bulb bigger lights, and four spotlights and you kept them all on from 4:30PM until 11:30PM, the holiday lights alone would cost around $32.01 for the month of December. Switching those thirsty old incandescents for some sweet LEDs would let you brighten up with a whopping 15 strands of the 100-bulb LED lights, at a cost of $1.63!! That’s some amazing payback potential, and only 5 cents per day to have your house (or your park or your City) shine brighter than ever.

In general, LEDs are less breakable, brighter, and don't burn out. That said, quality counts. Some of the lower quality (cheaper) LEDs are reported to fail. Stick with ENERGY STAR rated lights. They have a 3-year warranty and guaranteed power savings.

Random light bulb trivia: Electric Christmas lights were first sold in 1890 not long after Edison first invented light bulbs. But they were so expensive that even wealthy people, who saw them as status symbols, had to rent instead of buy. By the 1930’s, cities and towns had seasonal light displays and General Electric sponsored community lighting competitions. And by the 1950’s home displays were fairly commonplace.

Please join me. Let’s switch to LEDs and make this the year of energy-smart Christmas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reinventing Fire: A Book Review

Sustainable Industries just posted a review of Amory Lovins new book, Reinventing Fire by Jay Ogilvy, co-founder of the Global Business Network and former dean and chief academic officer at the Presidio Graduate School.

Ogilvy introduces the book by saying:

Many know Amory Lovins as what Isaiah Berlin would call a hedgehog rather than a fox: a thinker with one big idea rather than a lot of little ones. In Lovins’ case, the one big idea would be conservation though efficiency, an idea he made elegantly famous by favoring “negawatts” over megawatts--energy not used over energy that is expensively lifted out of the ground. By pursuing demand side management—the “soft path”—rather than drilling for more oil or building more nuclear plants—the “hard path”—we can end our oil addiction, reduce our energy costs, and live in a safer and more secure environment.

In Reinventing Fire, Lovins and his staff at the Rocky Mountain Institute have not surrendered the soft path vision first put forth in Foreign Affairs in 1976. But now they have filled in that big, hedgehog-like idea with enough detail to satisfy the foxes. Rather than relying on one big technological breakthrough to supply cheap, clean energy—an approach that, by comparison, looks pretty hedgehoggish—Lovins and Co. rely only on well-proven, existing technologies to chart a pragmatic path from here to a much better future.

I'll get the chance to read it myself during the upcoming between quarter break. Meanwhile, I wanted to share this new work by someone who approaches energy efficiency as a comprehensive strategy for economic and foreign policy resilience while combatting climate change.

Join team Soft Path, and win, win, win.

Friday, November 11, 2011

As Easy as Screwing In A Lightbulb

Traditional incandescent light bulbs waste 90% of their energy as heat instead of light. If you've ever burned your fingers, you've experienced it for yourself. We turn on light bulbs when we want light, but when we do it Edison-style, most of the energy is wasted. Its an upside-down system. In order to get light, we get stuck paying for really inefficient heat, even when it is all hot and we don't want any.

Luckily American, Asian, and European lighting manufacturers have responded to the challenge with an unprecedented wave of innovation and new products. We can light our homes, offices, factories, and streets better than ever. And we will save money and energy while doing it. The US Dept of Energy says that people who swap 15 inefficient incandescent bulbs for new energy-savers will save, on average, $50 a year in energy bills. My personal electricity use fell by 15% after replacing the busiest bulbs in my house.

Today you can buy bulbs that last really long for hard to reach spaces, bulbs with a romantic or functional mood, bulbs with accurate color rendering (artists and fashionistas, rejoice!), bulbs good for reading, bulbs for ambient light or spotlights for showcasing merchandise or art, bulbs for retrofits or for new fixtures, bulbs that dim, and bulb shapes designed for lamps, recessed cans, bathroom fixtures, chandeliers, and the great outdoors.

Beginning in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission required new Lighting Facts Labels to help us navigate the new choices. In the past light labels made us choose based on the wattage, which is a measure of how much energy the bulb uses. By way of contrast, the new labels look a lot like the familiar nutrition labels on packaged food. They tell us things that are way more relevant to the purchasing decision. Now everyone can easily see and compare:
  • Brightness, shown in lumens. 800 lumens is about the same as a 60W incandescent. 1,100 lumens is about equal to a 75W.
  • Estimated annual energy cost
  • Life expectancy, in years
  • Whether the bulb meets ENERGY STAR standards (generally required to qualify for utility incentive programs)
  • The appearance or "color temperature "of the light. This is measured in degrees Kelvin, where something in the 5,000 - 6,000K range is considered cool and 2,500 - 3,200K is warm. The range of color temperatures goes beyond soft white or regular. Choices are amazing. You can completely change the aesthetics of a room with different color temps, without necessarily changing the amount of actual light. If you always hated the blue-ish nonfat milk look of the early CFLs, you may be pleasantly surprised by the warmth and beauty of a 2,900K lamp. Buy several as samples to take home and compare the effect. Then pick your favorite.
  • How many watts it uses. Same as the familiar energy-use measurement from the old style labels.
  • Whether it contains mercury (CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, far less than in the past. If it's in there, return it for free to Lowe's or Home Depot or a community household hazardous waste facility.
Posted here are some sample labels for bulbs that put out a little over 800 lumens. Can you tell which one gives you more light for your energy money?

One super-easy trick to help you pick is to choose ENERGY STAR bulbs. An ENERGY STAR qualified light bulb:
  • Saves money, about $6 a year in electricity costs and can save more than $40 over its lifetime
  • Certified by a third party to meet strict performance requirements
  • Uses about 75% less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer
  • Produces about 75% less heat, so it's safer to operate and can cut energy costs associated with home cooling

Monday, November 7, 2011

Where does all that energy go?

Where does all our energy go? Well, more than half of it is wasted. Does that grab your attention the same way it gets mine?

The U.S. is the second largest energy user in the world, and is #7 in per capita use (Yes, Canada, you have us beat on a per capita basis). For the past 50 years, energy consumption has exceeded energy production, with the differences being made up with imported energy.

Understanding what is going on requires a deep dive into the data.

The US Dept of Energy and the Energy Information Agency track all sorts of statistics, and make data and projections available for analysis. Here is an easy to follow, colorful interactive view of U.S. energy generation by source, and how it is used, broken down by sector based on 2009 data analyzed by Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. From this I learned that of the 94.5 Q BTU generated and used by all sources, 54.5 Q BTU, or more than half of the energy generated, is "wasted." It is lost due to inefficiencies in distribution, transmission or use. The worst area for waste (by far) is the transportation sector, where waste exceeds use by more than 3x. I'd like to learn more about what that really means, and what it will take to make a big dent in that number.

Meanwhile, commercial and residential energy consume 18% and 22% of our energy budget respectively. The following chart shows where that energy is going. Space heating and cooling and lighting are the biggest users, and therefore, the most fruitful areas to focus on improving efficiency.

Image from:

Now that we have this background in place to provide some overall context, I can share more about commercial and residential energy efficiency issues, opportunities, techniques, and news in future blog posts.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Spark's 1st Video Release

Drum-roll please. Spark in the Dark's first-ever home video is complete, and is about to be unveiled, in public, right here on this very blog.

This was created for an assignment in BGI's Social Media for Social Change class.Many of us wondered how we could possibly complete the assignment. I started out not even knowing that Windows comes with a video editor. Its called Movie Maker. It is limited, but in that useful sort of way that makes it relatively easy to use.

After worrying about the assignment for a bit, I finally let go and had some fun with it. In the spirit of the class ("ship early ship often, and don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough"), I unveil it here, for your viewing pleasure.

It was fun to meet Joule. Her agent says that she is available for film, play, and commercial roles.