Random Environmental Thoughts

March 22nd, 2007 by Potato

Canada should be a world leader when it comes to issues of the environment, if for no other reason than because we have so much of it. Our record on Kyoto and greenhouse gas emissions has been rather shameful, though we do have a succession of uncaring minority governments to partially blame for that, as well as a relatively uncaring public (until quite recently, that is). It is long time past to fix that, though, and I’m surprised that while the election-hungry neocons have identified the environment as a key issue, they haven’t yet actually done a whole lot about it (the funding announcements of the last few days notwithstanding). Mostly, they’re throwing around as much rhetoric and mud as they can, hoping to survive the issue in the next election (which they’re desperately trying to bring for the summer, by all accounts). So the Europeans really showed us when they recently announced plans to go above and beyond their Kyoto commitments.

Of course, our leaders are always faced with tough choices. Global warming looks to be a very real threat, and could be potentially very devastating. However, it’s also a long-term, global problem, so it’s very difficult to face with our local, short-term perspective. After all, there’s tax cuts to be had, health care to bolster, and all manner of other problems to ignore, everything from homelessness to defense, space exploration to public transportation, basic research to primary education.

Something not a lot of people are talking about is that a lot of these initiatives are needed for another problem all together: peak oil. Thanks to advances in new technology, we aren’t going to run out of oil for a long time to come. Which is a good thing, because alternatives (hydrogen, biofuels, electricity, etc) are still uncomfortably far off into the future. However, we’re already starting to see evidence of tightening supply. The thing with something that is in such high demand, such as oil, is that even modest declines in supply can lead to huge swings in price, since demand is so very inelastic (and I may be abusing my economic terminology, so forgive me here). We saw this quite clearly recently in Ontario: a fire at an Imperial Oil refinery caused fairly widespread shortages, station closures, and an increase of roughly 20-25% in price. And this was at a time when demand was relatively low due to the bad weather keeping many drivers off the road. The thing is, that refinery was nowhere near responsible for 20+% of our refining ability (one report says it was just 6% of Imperial’s capacity, just one of several major companies operating in Ontario). So a relatively minor drop in supply lead to a relatively large increase in price. Imagine that sort of situation even just 10 years from now if world oil extraction drops just a bit… But if we have developed technologies at this point in time to battle greenhouse emissions and use less oil, then we will simultaneously tackle that problem.

It’s a lot like hybrid cars in that regard: the combination of electric and gasoline power make hybrids more efficient in their use of oil, especially for stop-and-go city driving. Some people have slammed them as not solving the root problem of oil dependence, since they do still run on gas, however they are actually very good bridge technologies. Not only are they effective at saving gas right now, they also serve to develop the electric motors and batteries (and underlying manufacturing base) that will likely be needed for any future technology car.

I was glad to see the hybrid car rebate included in the federal budget, and the increased gas guzzler tax. One person recently was hailing the Cons for this move, saying that they’re clearly a pro-environmental party, and that this was a very pro-environment budget. To that I just have to say that this is, as many commentators are saying, a pre-election budget. It’s a pro-everything budget. The Cons have been very reticient to make any of these moves, and have only done so because currently these issues are at the forefront of Canadians’ minds. I have no doubt that if public focus shifts (as it does quite often), the Cons will stop all further progress. They haven’t lead us to these measures, they’ve been driven to them. A release today in the CBC has some good rhetoric, and it’s a lot further along than they were a year ago… but they’re still using this double-talk of a “balanced approach” and continuing to think that anything that’s good for the environment must be bad for our way of life.

Another environmental intiative making the rounds lately is the idea of banning outright the sale of incandescent bulbs. This is one move I can’t get behind. Taxing them is, in my opinion, an excellent idea: make some money for the government, and make the initial purchase price of an incandescent the same as a fluorescent — even short-term thinkers can then make better decisions about which to get, rather than having to try to weigh the costs against the long-term energy savings. That should help dramatically shift the usage away from the incandescents. Compact fluorescents are a good thing, and I’ve been putting them in a lot of rooms in the house here. However, they do have a few short-comings, and for these reasons it’s important to have incandescents as an option (though perhaps we should stop using them as our main source of home lighting):

  • Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are more costly overall if they do not manage to live out their whole life-cycle. They also contain trace amounts of mercury. Combined, these two issues mean that CFLs should not be used in areas where lights are more likely to be smashed than wear out from old age (places like batting cages, say, or where small children throw rocks at them).
  • CFLs can not be used in enclosed light fixtures, such as some pot lights or other recessed/indirect lighting conditions.
  • Many CFLs can not be put on dimmer switches (be sure to check the package before putting yours on one!).
  • Some types of CFLs (I do not know if this applies to all of them) do not handle extremes in temperature well, and may not be suited to use in fridges, stoves, range hoods, or outdoor lighting.
  • Almost all CFLs have a delay between turning on the switch and lighting up. There is a further delay between the first spark and full brightness. While this is not a problem for most applications, it is slightly less than ideal for some applications such as motion-detector-triggered security lights (compounded by further delays in cold environments), and lightswitch raves.
  • A small minority of people find that the flicker from fluorescent lighting (including CFLs, though they don’t seem quite as bad) gives them headaches.
  • CFLs have less-than-perfect colour fidelity. While it’s good enough for almost all uses, some specialized cases (certain science experiments, artists) may find that they prefer to use incandescents for their broad-spectrum output.
  • Some sensitive electronics can experience interference from some types of CFLs (I believe the kind with magnetic ballast) due to proximity or being on the same circuit.

For the majority of cases, they are great ways to save tonnes of energy, but for these situations, we should aim to have incandescents as an option (even if it is an expensive one).

Finally, another recent story said that because conservation efforts have started working so well, Toronto Hydro is losing money, and wants to hike electricity rates. I don’t know what to say to that. On the one hand, more expensive electricity encourages people to conserve, and brings it closer to the true cost to produce. But I don’t want to see peoples’ bills go up because they were conserving (the net bill will go down, but you know many people won’t see it that way). I’m also not so sure Toronto Hydro is really too hard up if they’ve got the cash to spare to get into the telecom business…

4 Responses to “Random Environmental Thoughts”

  1. Ben Says:

    “CFLs can not be used in enclosed light fixtures, such as some pot lights or other recessed/indirect lighting conditions.”

    Why is this?

  2. Potato Says:

    The short answer is that they do not respond well to excess heat, and need airflow around them to cool them to acceptable temperatures, otherwise they may experience shortened lifespans, and have a slightly increased chance of exploding/failing immediately. I’ll try to look up a source for you…

    Edit: Added dimmer switches and electronic interference to the list. Again, don’t get me wrong: they’re a fantastic technology, but while they can replace 95% of our incandescent light usage (and LED arrays perhaps another 4% of that — pulling numbers out of my ass here) I think it’s a little ridiculous to completely ban incandescents.

    GE’s FAQ on CFLs says simply not to use them in completely enclosed fixtures: that is, pot lights with covers. They imply that a pot light with an open bottom will allow sufficient airflow to cool the bulb. They don’t explain why there, though.

    Wikipedia says that excess temperature can affect the ballast and vapour pressure of mercury in the lamp — which affects lifetime and overall efficiency.

  3. Wayfare Says:

    No more lightswitch raves?!? I don’t want to live in that world!!! I was busy focusing on the fact that CFLs give me headaches, blinding me to the real problem with banning incandescents!! I should start stockpiling proper light bulbs now, just in case.

  4. Netbug Says:

    I think we should strive towards developing better eyes so we don’t need lights. That was we can all go around looking like suprise lemurs.

    And who doesn’t want to look like a suprised lemur?