CFLs again (revised 10AM PST Sun)

Wal-Mart’s push to sell lots of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), on which I opined last week, has generated a post from Jane Galt (with lots of comments) and an article in today’s Times by William Hamilton. Together, these comprise the damndest fruitcake of conjecture, urban legend, assertive bloviating, and some useful facts in my recent experience. (Jane was woofing at the original version of this post while I was revising this.)

Galt’s basic point is that fluorescent light is depressing, so there. Curiously, people in the gloomy northwest with seasonal affective depression treat the condition with a big fluorescent fixture to sit in front of over coffee in the morning. Hamilton says the lamps aren’t hot, so they fail to tickle a primal something-or-other going back to the fire in a cave, and that the physical form of the lamps, a helical white glass tube, is intimidating. God help him if he goes near the New York Guggenheim, or comes upon a snail. Before I go on, I wish to record my absolute commitment to Galt’s and Hamilton’s and anyone else’s perfect right to buy all the electricity they want to run all the incandescent or any other kind of light they choose for no better reason than that they want to, or they just don’t like twisty shapes, or that they don’t like thinking about a fluorescent in that fixture even if they can’t see it and even if (as is demonstrably the case, according to one of Hamilton’s sources) they can’t tell what kind of lamp is in it without peeking into the shade. Both these authors, however, have some recorded claim that their opinions might change if they learned something, and I assume this is true of readers of this blog. What follows is an attempt to describe the issues affecting fluorescent substitution for incandescent lighting with some facts; if you think I’m telling you what kind of lamps to buy, review the italicized text above.

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WalMart greening up

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry here: WalMart is about to make a big push to sell 100,000,000 compact fluorescent lamps (bulbs, in common parlance) a year. These are a no-brainer in general: they last ten times as long as incandescents, save three-quarters of the electricity lumen-for-lumen, don’t get hot and cause fires, and only cost about ten bucks (unless your local utility is subsidizing them, as mine is, for $1 each). So far, so good; kudos to WalMart, especially as their suppliers of incandescent lamps seem to be trying to dig their heels in.

However, CFL market penetration has been very slow; only about one household in fifteen uses them. What I can’t understand is how Michael Barbaro can write a zillion column inches about this project and not once mention the most important practical obstacle to CFL adoption: only a few of them, typically hard to find at retail, work with the dimmers that are widely installed and popular. Can it be that no-one at WalMart has figured out that stocking dimmable CFLs, and making it known that they do, is an essential piece of this puzzle? Hasn’t Barbaro been frustrated trying to green up his own house by this problem?

Since I mention it, here’s a merchant among others: google “dimmable cfl” for more.

UPDATE: Nathan Newman has a post on the original story, with a zillion comments, one of which notes that putting cfls in fixtures in rental units that people don’t expect to stay in for ten years is a complicated question for landlords and tenants both. Andy Sabl writes to RBC to suggest that there may not be all that many dimmers installed (in portable or permanent lighting) and perhaps the market is just not there for them. I don’t know; I put dimmers everywhere I could before cfls came out but have now put back some switches so I could use cfls, and made rather complicated modifications so I could use dimmable cfls with multi-location dimmers. I realize most people don’t get inside their walls and wiring as willingly as I do, so I shouldn’t project here.

But the general question, why aren’t more cfls being used, is part of a very interesting and consistent pattern of consumers underadopting energy-efficient technology (high-EER air conditioners, for example) even when the choice puts money in their pocket, sometimes a lot, over time, and even when it’s as easy is picking item A rather than B off a shelf, never mind spending a Saturday weatherstripping windows. It’s not just poor people with very high discount rates or capital market failure, it’s most of us, and it’s puzzling. In the circles I move in, I would have expected social pressure to make people a little embarrassed to have a bunch of incandescent bulbs blazing away just as it’s moved a lot of my friends and associates into smaller cars, and some into hybrids that actually cost them net money; indeed I would have expected overinvestment in these devices (there’s no reason to put a cfl into the bare bulb socket in the attic where it will only operate a few hours a year).

If I don’t stop, I’m headed for a Jeremiad about most people’s deplorable ignorance of the very basic science of their everyday lives, which I will spare you.

Solving the wrong problem

The anti-sex crowd doesn’t like condoms as a way of solving the AIDS problem.
The enviros don’t like increasing the albedo as a way of solving the global warming problem.
Separated at birth?

Problems are precious in politics. If you can just convince everybody that your pet idea is the solution to a widely recognized crisis, you’re in like Flynn. As Lyndon Johnson once said of Hubert Humphrey: “Poor Hubert! He’s got solutions no one else has problems for.”

But there’s always a threat that someone will come up with a different solution to your problem, one that leaves your pet idea out. That creates a pretty overwhelming temptation to ignore the alternative, laugh at it, or gin up a “think tank” report proving it won’t work.

Take AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, for example. To those with fanatical religious commitments to (especially female) sexual purity, AIDS was &#8212 if you’ll pardon the expression &#8212 a godsend. As C.S. Lewis acknowledged a long time ago, once the invention of effective contraception separated nonmarital sex from most of its practical consequences, unchastity, unconnected with imprudence and injustice, didn’t seem like much of a sin to non-theologians. (That’s the unacknowledged fact behind much of the fury about abortion.)

But AIDS gives sex back some of its terror, and thus chastity some of its potency. And of course AIDS does double duty by making male homosexual activity especially risky, thus supporting an otherwise pretty obviously pointless taboo.

So sex-only-within-heterosexual-marriage has found its problem, and the Federal government is spending millions in the name of public health to spread the &#8212 pardon me again &#8212 gospel of abstinence.

Of course, barrier contraception, practiced carefully, is an alternative solution to the STD problem. Thus it becomes essential to laugh at condoms, to emphasize their failure rate, and when possible to ban their distribution.

Most of my readers, I suspect, will find this example uncontroversial, even banal. (The remaining few will be outraged by it and accuse me of insulting their religion.)

But here’s another one, which will seem less banal but which seems to me equally clear:

To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened in order to limit the scope for national selfishness, and to those (an overlapping but not identical group) that thinks current attitudes toward maintaining the planet we inhabit are much too casual and insufficiently reverent, global warming is a Gaia-send. It means that the current pattern of activity is unsustainable, and it requires fairly drastic public action on a worldwide scale. Their eagerness to believe the worst (cf. An Inconvenient Truth) is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism. That’s not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.

To those dreaming happily of all the new taxes and regulations that will be necessary to contain energy consumption, chortling at the consequent discomfiture of Humvee owners and ExxonMobil’s tame politicians, and hoping for a new era of environmental consciousness, a solution to global warming that didn’t involve reining in consumption and imposing new taxes and regulations would be as welcome as rain at a picnic.

Take geoengineering, for example. It would take only a very small reduction in incident solar radiation (i.e., an increase in the Earth’s albedo) to completely offset all the anthropogenic warming now on the horizon. And it turns out that there are several plausible approaches to achieving such a reduction: funny-sounding high-tech ones such as putting a bunch of aluminum-coated Mylar in low earth orbit, lower-tech and possibly scary approaches such as detuning aircraft engines to put a little bit more sulfate into the stratosphere (with the disadvantage that some of it would come back down as acid rain), and the astonishingly low-tech and safe-sounding move of spraying seawater into the clouds over the oceans, making them somewhat shinier. Seawater-on-clouds is especially attractive because the effect doesn’t last long (and is therefore easily reversible by simply stopping the spraying) and because it’s hard to get upset about making the rain that falls back into the oceans a little bit salty.

I don’t claim that any of these is now known to be feasible, affordable, or adequate, or that there may not turn out to be insuperable objections to each of them, and to any other albedo-increasing plans. I do claim that the public discourse that has largely ignored this approach is, to that extent, defective.

Given how expensive it would be to fix global warming by reducing emissions, we ought to be looking for alternatives. A couple of billion dollars a year is probably more than the field of geoengineering could now profitably absorb, but it would be absolutely trivial compared to the costs we might avoid if we could make it work.

So why is this still a fringe topic? Partly, of course, because of the stupidity of the anti-environmentalist right and its corporate sponsors, for whom denying the existence of any environmental problem is by now strongly conditioned reflex. (As liberals discovered about crime in the late 60s and early 70s, once you’re identified with denying that a problem exists you don’t have much cred when you insist that you have a better, less costly solution to it.) But largely, I submit, because the people who think Earth in the Balance was one of Al Gore’s accomplishments rather than one of the strongest reasons to doubt his fitness to be President really don’t want a non-Gaian, non-regulatory solution to their most precious problem.

Now as it happens I like some of the most important proposed steps toward controlling global warming, on other grounds. We need to burn less oil to stop funding terrorists, and less coal to stop breathing particulate, and creating urban areas where mass transit is an attractive alternative to driving sounds like heaven to me. So I’m all for a heavy carbon tax, or a gasoline tax, or anything else that makes fossil-fuel use more expensive. Anyway, we need the revenue to do lots of other things I’d like to see the government do. And I’m convinced that shrinking material consumption among the prosperous could make all of us prosperous folks better off, though of course any individual who consumes less risks falling behind in the status race.

Still and all, it seems to me that denying (or ignoring) the potential of albedo-increasing approaches to control global warming isn’t much more sensible than denying global warming itself, or denying that increasing condom use would decrease HIV transmission.

Al, I’d like you to meet my friend Benedict. Benedict, this is Al. You guys have a lot in common.

Update: Reason’s Cathy Young comments.

I respond: no, I don’t think Al Gore is nearly as wrong as Exxon Mobil.

Winter ethanol policy

During the heatwave last summer, I drew forth lots of good suggestions for summer drinks. With the holidays looming, who knows some good winter drinks? My favorite is an Old Fashioned; here is my complete recipe:

In about an 8-oz squat glass, lightly smoosh a slice each of orange and lemon (get the juice out, but don’t mangle the rind) with about a tablespoon of sugar syrup (sugar dissolves badly in alcohol, especially cold alcohol) (variation: real maple syrup) half an ounce of Triple Sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier, and a couple of generous dashes of Angostura Bitters. FIll the glass with crushed ice, and add liquor (see below), a splat of club soda, and a Maraschino cherry. Stir (this drink is an exception to the rule about shaking drinks with fruit and stirring others).

This is good with almost any brown liquor, including smoky (Scotch, Irish), or not (bourbon, rye) and if you use rum, you get a completely different drink, still excellent; sort of a cold-zone rum punch. “A drink” calls for three ounces of liquor; if you’re careful about who’s driving, etc., you can add more. It’s probably not comme-il-faut but nice to fish out the fruit when you’re done and eat it.

others (assume we know about hot buttered rum, Glögg, and Irish Coffee)?

The carbon-for-payroll tax trade

A carbon tax is a nice idea substantively. Pairing it with reducing the burden of payroll taxes might even make it palatable politically.

I think Mike O’Hare is right: the CAFE fuel-economy standard for automobiles is a miserable kludge.

I also think his green friends are right: carbon taxes are a non-starter, for the same reason any policy containing the word “tax” but not the word “cut” is a non-starter, in the current political situation.

But I have a fix to suggest. The Republicans have had some success in creating panic about a largely non-existent Social Security funding crisis. But beyond that looms a quite real Medicare funding crisis. So let’s kill two birds with one stone: slowly (there’s no rush) replace payroll taxes with carbon charges.

[Not just the “employee” half; replace he whole thing, since in general the “employer” half also comes out of the employee’s hide in the form of lower wages. But the business lobbies seem to love anything that reduces taxes paid by business, regardless of what the incidence analysis shows.]

The cap on the FICA tax makes it the most regressive element of the Federal tax structure; the emergence of “Reagan Democrats” probably had as much to do with the increase in FICA as part of the Social Security deal Reagen euchred Tip O’Neill into going along with as it did with social issues. So getting rid of it is good for the working-class voters who have been getting such a raw deal for the last couple of decades.

That’s not to say that the carbon-for-payroll trade is an obvious political winner. But it’s not as obvious a political loser as a carbon tax all by its lonesome.

Update Steve Teles argues against fixing a Social Security system that isn’t broken, and points out that the regressivity of the tax could be reduced by lifting the earnings cap. (And, I would add, including dividends, interest, and capital gains in the FICA base.) He suggests instead using a carbon tax to pay for universal health care. I’ll accept that as a friendly amendment, though I would still start by getting rid of the Medicare part of the payroll tax, thus making the carbon tax, to start with, something other than a straight tax increase.

Timothy Noah notes in Slate that various Republican gurus are lining up behind a carbon tax. I don’t know how much that matters, since none of them has ever run for office, but it’s nice to know.

What’s wrong with CAFE standards

One of my engineering professors once said “there’s a right and wrong way to scratch your ear. The wrong way is like this,” reaching over the top of his head with his right hand to his left ear. “If you want to scratch your ear, do it this way,” raising his left hand directly to his left ear. The principle – for example, to carry a load to the ground by putting a column directly under it where possible – is exquisitely important in the formation and design of public policy and violated by the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) approach to energy efficiency. Wading into the discussion earlier today; I love my fellow bloggers even when they are wrongwrongwrong, pant pant pant…

The layers of complex, tortured programs (whose implementation is a bureaucratic nightmare) that we are assembling to reduce oil imports and greenhouse gas releases are scratching our ear the wrong way, but at a Plastic Man level. For one thing, CAFE is only approximately related to actual fuel use, because manufacturers get to count cars as though they were all driven the same amount, and they are not. CAFE does exactly nothing to encourage the most effective thing we can do to slow global warming, which is to drive less.

For another, vehicles that operate on biofuel rather than gasoline holed it below the waterline, so a patch was applied: the CAFE credit for a vehicle designed for ethanol is increased as though that car will be driven on ethanol a lot, but of course E85 fuel is only available here and there, so the policy instrument is still further divorced from the desired effect. The inevitable complexity of calculating and applying CAFE rules invites undermining it with exceptions of all sorts, especially including the exemption of light trucks and SUVs that the manufacturers achieved. Why do we want to suppress petroleum use in a car but don’t care if it’s burned in a pickup? CAFE is part of a leaky policy flotilla, sailing along with the ridiculous 50c ethanol subsidy, on which we are slapping patches without end.

This is the time, with the Stern report out and Gore’s movie still working on public consciousness, to go for the right mechanism for the task, a simple and transparent device that makes attempts to slip spanners between these or those cogs visible: a carbon charge. This charge, imposed on every pound of fossil carbon going through the market (but not atmospheric carbon captured by a plant and sold in, for example, ethanol) will immediately infuse the energy system with efficient incentives to use this scarce resource (atmospheric capacity to accept C) where it does the most good. It will go on working as technologies and habits arise that we can’t imagine now, and therefore can’t explicitly include in a regulatory model like CAFE. It’s adjustable up or down in small increments as we observe its effects without threatening the sudden obsolescence of large amounts of capital or requiring an instant change in living habits from those who have good reason to go slowly. It rewards better behavior instantly without requiring anyone to invest in anything bigger than a good pair of shoes or a bicycle.

Why would we favor a coercive, directive, rigid, and sloppy policy instrument like CAFE standards in preference to something simple, precise, effective, and perfectly targeted? For some reason, my right-thinking green friends have a verbal tic that makes them say “…of course, that’s politically impossible” every time they admit a carbon charge trumps every greenhouse gas reduction alternative. But they’re wrong, and will be wronger if they stop repeating this bromide. It’s no more politically impossible than an excise tax on beverage alcohol. Let’s stop retreating before we even see a flake of Moscow snow.

The homeowner and the fire

The homeowner whose house four firefighters died protecting in the Esperanza fire has a profile in the LAT today. It’s a second home, in which he invested years of work and where he stored a collection of Indian artifacts and antique cars even though, in his words, “there are quite a few fires up there”, one of which was stopped only 800 feet from the house.

What’s really wrong with Wal-Mart

I have to weigh in to the Wal-Mart discussion, because if we only talk about the retail and labor economics of this institution, we are missing something that may be even more important. I’m thinking about the degradation of everyday life Wal-Mart, and all big-box stores and malls, enforce as an inseparable condition of their ability to provide a lot of stuff at a low cash-register price. I use that awkward phrase to emphasize that things we pay less money for may still be expensive in other ways: getting stuff at places like Wal-Mart is a transaction in which we sell our humanity for money. The reasons are a little complicated, and have more to do with automobiles than employment practices; bear with me.

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Who killed the firefighters?

Riverside County has put a $100,000 price on the heads of the arsonist[s] who got beered up and set a fire that has killed four or five firefighters (one is hanging by a thread in the hospital, badly burned) and is at 24,000 acres and growing. What they did is certainly murder and they should be prosecuted if we can find them. But just because the arsonists are guilty shouldn’t distract us from all the other things that doomed the firefighters. These fall into three categories, and the second two are people behaving badly:

I. Constraints

(A) The immutable physical linkages among pressure, temperature, and volume in a gas (air) means that when dry air slides down a mountain, usually opposite the prevailing wind direction, it gets hotter and drier. PV=nRT, and the adiabatic lapse rate is about 5 deg. F/1000 ft whether we like it (or believe it) or not. When, not if: places like California (Santa Ana), Provence (Mistral), North Africa (Scirocco), Austria (Foehn) regularly experience this hot, dry wind. Regularly.

(B) Mediterranean climate, meaning long summers with no rain, and a resulting ecology of regular wildfires and plants adapted to them.

(C) Lightning ignites fires.

II. Private choices

(A) People go into environments like the one experiencing this fire, build houses, and live in them.

(B) Other people go into these environments, whether by road or off-road vehicles, with widely varying judgment, experience, and moral fitness to be left unsupervised. Some among them will start fires, on purpose or accidentally.

III. Public policy

(A) Land use, zoning, tax policy, and road construction choices permit and facilitate human habitation of these extremely dangerous places.

(B) Emergency services, especially firefighting, are deployed to protect structures and citizens where possible when (again, not if) the fire occurs.

(C) Insurance companies, though heavily regulated in many ways, are not obliged to charge premiums that reflect the real expected cost of choices like II (A); indeed, they are under heavy political pressure to keep insurance “affordable” for people who enjoy living in dangerous places, and enjoy it even more if they can get everyone else (taxpayers and other policyholders) to pay for their risks.

There’s nothing to be done about category I, and little for II(B). But the firefighters died, heroically, trying to save a house. What was it doing there? The homeowners, whose reckless decision to live in a fire zone of canyons and steep slopes, have not been identified in news stories that treat the arsonists as the unique cause of the tragedy [update 28/X/06: now they have]; neither have the Riverside County supervisors who chose to enable citizen behavior that is certain to lead to outcomes like this, nor the state insurance regulators who enabled a systematic deception of the homeowners about the risks they were creating. Firefighters will die as long as we have buildings, but foolish land use policy will kill a lot more of them.

Fires will be set, by people (accidentally or on purpose) or by lightning. This landscape will burn. Just as surely, as my father used to say, as God made little green apples, beaches and seaside cliffs will erode, hurricanes will blow, flood plains will flood, and living in places like those entails absolutely certain disasters. Some firefighters’ doom was sealed when people moved out into the chaparral canyons, we just didn’t know which ones’.

What about earthquakes? Good question: the answer is that we do a lot better pricing the risk (bought any earthquake insurance in California lately?) than we used to, and it’s much easier to build for personal and building survivability in a seismic zone than to do the same for fires and floods. We built San Francisco in the wrong place before we realized how dangerous it was, but that’s no reason to keep making such mistakes in new hazard zones, especially at public expense.