Technology and environment

The great CFL debate is back!  And the Tea Party stalwarts, along with the always-entertaining Joe Barton, are plunging in to defend us from overweening governments that have the nerve to tell us which side of the road to drive on and what color taillights cars should have.

As usual, the lamp (lightbulb, in common speech) discussion is stuck on flicker, color, use with dimmers, and the helical shape of CFLs [what in the world is that one about?] (all of which have improved enormously as the industry learns and innovates) and misses some interesting dimensions.  The most important problem with low-energy alternatives to incandescent lamps is their low luminosity, the amount of light a square millimeter of surface emits.  This means a given number of lumens requires a relatively large object (think of the filament of a conventional incandescent, not the glass envelope).  That’s good when you don’t want harsh shadows, and you don’t have to conceal the lamp itself, but it makes the light very hard to control and direct.  An incandescent filament, for example, can be placed at the focus of a parabolic reflector to project a very well-behaved parallel beam of light that can be further directed where you want it and where you don’t, or at the focus of an ellipsoidal reflector that will put almost all the light through a very small opening at the other focus; lcd and CFL lamp output can only be more or less corralled into a fuzzy cone.  This rules them out for theatrical lighting and a variety of architectural/decorating uses where contrast and control are important. There is no CFL spotlight. Almost any application can use a halogen source, which is about 25% more efficient than a standard incandescent; not nearly as good as fluorescent or LED but not chopped liver.The way to use energy for light is to use it where it does the most good, which is not always where it makes the most light; the planet can tolerate a certain amount of incandescent lighting for aesthetic purposes.  Unfortunately, as long as we are allergic to a carbon tax charge, which gently but firmly guides society towards just such an optimal portfolio of choices, we are stuck with these regulatory kludges.

The next section of this post is about the device that (with its associated plumbing) has added more years to life expectancy than all of modern medical science, and even chicken soup, namely the [water] closet (toilet to most of us).  Another regulatory intrusion luddites and grinches and grouches like to complain about is low-flow closets; the standard is 1.6 gallons per flush (compared to as much as 5 in older closets) and the early models gave rise to predictable grousing about flushing twice, incomplete clearing, etc.  An unexpected outcome of their wide adoption has been much reduced liquid flow in sewers (though this is an advantage for sewage treatment plants, which do better with less water and more yuck).

Last year, I installed a closet from American Standard rated at 1.28 gallons per flush.  It’s not a compressed-air pressure type, just a gravity tank with completely conventional controls, but it is the most reliable, no-extra-flushes, no-clogs toilet in the house, a better performer than the thirsty monster it replaced.  So again, technological progress continues after the first baby steps and teething problems presented by a new regulation; this is not a closet that saves lots of water and is “almost as good”; it’s better in every way (though more expensive than the typical builder’s special model).

Both of these technologies raise a persistent question about consumers’ response to price. We are getting all bent out of shape about gas prices, that are posted in big red letters along the street, but CFLs save a fortune in electricity, a bigger fortune when you are air conditioning, a smaller one when you are heating your house with a furnace, and unless you live in one of the few places where water isn’t metered, like Sacramento, CA, the closet is a pretty good investment just on selfish grounds.  Homeowners and landlords persistently leave very attractive investments like these on the table (a cloud on the horizon for the carbon charge), and it’s still not clear why, or what can be done about it that isn’t paternalistic.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

29 thoughts on “Technology and environment”

  1. “Unfortunately, as long as we are allergic to a carbon tax charge, which gently but firmly guides society towards just such an optimal portfolio of choices, we are stuck with these regulatory kludges.”

    Well, no, we’re not stuck with them, letting people make their own choices themselves is an option which has to always be on the table. It’s just an option you tend to be blind to, when you’re determined to get your way on something, and figure the only question to be settled is how other people get herded into doing what you want them to do.

  2. letting people make their own choices themselves is an option which has to always be on the table

    I’m more than happy to let people make their own choices so long as they pay the costs of those choices. Those costs include externalities. If you don’t pay for those, you are paying the costs of your choices. So long as Americans are dead set upon not paying all the costs of their choices, they should find those choices constrained by regulatory kludges. This really is a principle that libertarians should grasp. Hayek (not actually a libertarian) did, and he’s the one I hear libertarians citing all the time to support their positions. I guess they really didn’t understand him.

  3. Conservatives should have the choice to buy CFLs that spiral to the right, if they can’t stand ones that spiral to the left.

    Alternatively, what JMN said (except he left out a “not”, I think.)


  4. The problem I have with fluorescents is the color. Incandescents have a wide spectrum whereas fluorescents hit on wavelenths specific to the mixture of gasses they contain. Not pretty, not good for viewing or doing art and possibly emotionally depressing during the dark months of winter.
    Best bet is to mix them up but still the house doesn’t look quite as pretty.

  5. What I find funniest are the aesthetic arguments from folks on the Right. The spectrum level isn’t up to snuff! It flickers too much!

    Meanwhile, Dancing with the Stars is consistently rated #1 among conservative television watchers.

    Aesthetics my a**.

  6. Oh yeah, Michael? You ever try to interrogate a bound suspect in a near-empty room with a single table and a three-legged stool and a bare CFL hanging from a cord?

  7. > Well, no, we’re not stuck with them, letting people make
    > their own choices themselves is an option which has to
    > always be on the table.

    Unless you are manufacturing your own arc lamps from carbon you have scraped out of the bottom of your oven, you don’t have any “choice” in what type of light bulb you buy: you make a selection from the limited set of choices the major electrical equipment manufacturers decide to sell you. In the modern economy no individual or even small company has the ability to set up a competitive incandescent bulb manufacturing plant, much less an LED, florescent, or Super-Duper New Technology plant.


  8. Hey, how about this sort of regulation so we don’t have to build so many god-forsaken Nuke / Coal / Wind / Dam power plants?

    You want to give people the choices, but it turns out the people are actually pretty short sided much of the time.
    If power plants had zero risk, I’d be there with you Brett.

    But they do not.

  9. As a libertarian who is bothered by all sorts of government and market externalities, I see a hierarchy of issues here, and therefore of least-worst solutions to them. I want to concentrate on the big invisible one that is waving its trunk around and trumpeting agitatedly for a bun.

    The elephant in the room is: how big are the externalities really, and who do they fall on? And where is the disinterested party to measure them? The incentives for Government work two ways:

    1) Government qua government has an incentive to maximize its power and its members’ income: it will therefore tend to assume that externalities are large, and highly sensitive to impenetrable regulatory fiddling.

    2) Government qua hired gun has an incentive to rig the answers in favour of whoever is bankrolling its members. The concentrated interest here will be ‘dominant players in the existing market’.

    But there are two opposed incentives for these players, too. One is to say that externalities are small and the players should be left alone, to maximize their profits. The other is to say that externalities could be large, if just any riff-raff were allowed to wander in and compete with them. From this point of view, they also want externality estimates which are moderately large, and highly sensitive to impenetrable regulatory fiddling, which they have the money and clout to game and a new entrant hasn’t. I think there is probably also some incentive for the players to discourage innovation amongst themselves by recruiting the government as cartel enforcer, but I’m less certain about the strength of this in producing destructive regulation.

    So what we can expect is a compromise between four things. One: the statist incentive to make the stakes as high and the solution as obfuscated as possible, which aligns with a lesser corporate incentive to do the same thing. Two: the universal market incentive to assume externalities out of existence. Three: The oligopolist incentive to have the state enforce non-competition on both price and quality. Four: the general public interest in having a nice life, taking into account the real externalities of product and regulation, and also the embarrassment of being ruled according to narratives too obviously featuring powerful people’s fairy godmothers. This fourth is dispersed and weak, but it’s dangerous to coalesce its great strength by insulting its intelligence too rudely.

    How do we get out of that one? I’m not sure, within a framework of authority, that we can. Science is an obvious but not, I think, a very good candidate, since the more money and clout turns upon scientific research pointing one way rather than another, the more of both all factions will expend on making damned sure it is seen to come up with the right answers. And the more, too, of non-scientists’ ego and trust will be invested in scientists’ compliance with their political narratives.

    I agree that kludges are necessary: I’m not sure the present kind tend in a direction that is good for anybody. In the present situation, a flat no-loopholes carbon tax looks miles better to me than device-specific efficiency standards, and efficiency standards better than specific tech mandates or bans. So the rule being discussed strikes me as bad, yet better than imitating the EU’s wide-ranging ban. Are any of these solutions better in the long term than “doing nothing”, and trusting the consumer to pick up the dollar bills on the table eventually? I don’t know. I do suspect that peer-to-peer civil action not mediated by market mechanisms will be part of moving to anything better: even if the free market could solve all categories of problem, which it can’t, the broken and dominated facsimile we have of it just ain’t up to the job, or even allowed to be.

    Apologies for a monster long comment here, but I think the complexity of the problem is precisely why it’s such a stumper – and why attempts to solve it devolve so easily into ritual noncommunication across the great divides.

  10. Gray Woodland apologizes for the lenth of his post but the “complexities” made him do it. All over the net today the arguments rage over the complexities of neuclear power and the ballance between enough generating capacity and the possibility (probability eventually) of rendering whole nations uninhabitable for a future longer than the exitance of our species into the past. On some other day the debate is about the complexities of coal or oil with the inherent health risks, environmental destruction, wars and all the other misery and externalised costs.

    All things are full of complexities but can be reduced to some simpler examination. Our energy industries are dirty and dangerous and way too expensive. There are two obvious aproaches to solving this problem without ending our technology based economy. 1) Reduce comsumption. 2) Change the ways we generate energy.

    The first one is the easiest because it can be done in pieces, like using more efficient light bulbs and changing our habits. The second is harder but doable by using solar, wind, wave, geothermal, biomass and technologies yet undreamed of. Europe is doing all of these things with great success. These solutions work and will work better with time and money investments.

    We can piss and moan about the complexities of it all and rail about our rights to burn as much fuel as we damn well please ’cause we like to leave all the hundred watt bulbs burning night and day and nobody’s gonna take away our SUVs darn it, all the while our future prospects for living the lives we have become accustomed to dwindle. Or we can act like adults and accept that we better get busy and fix this one piece at a time and the mechanism for this is our governments. As complex as all of the details are the situation is that simple.

  11. Anomalous:

    Or we can act like adults and accept that we better get busy and fix this one piece at a time and the mechanism for this is our governments. As complex as all of the details are the situation is that simple.

    Part of the complexity was my taking time to suggest several less-worse approaches that existing governmental mechanisms might use to improve matters. Another part of it was suggesting why I think it unlikely, as a matter of fact, that they’ll do so. And that therefore we need to look for other ways which will do better – whether the government obliges our wishes or not.

    Accepting there are problems we need to fix, and that it will take work, is simplicity in the good sense. ‘Adulthood’ reduced to unquestioning faith that the mechanism must be more external government and less self-government is, to me, simplicity in a bad one. I don’t believe that you are a political infant for disagreeing with me. I will, however, suggest that your chosen mechanism has an infantilizing rather than a maturing dynamic to it, and so works against the very responsibility you want to propagate.

    Deeds as well as words, yes. Kludges not perfectionism, absolutely and simply. But it matters what the deeds are, and your energy solutions do not entail your political mechanism.

  12. “Last year, I installed a closet from American Standard rated at 1.28 gallons per flush. …but it is the most reliable, no-extra-flushes, no-clogs toilet in the house, a better performer than the thirsty monster it replaced.”

    I think it was 13, 14 year ago, I ordered an American Standard normal toilet, the mandate kicked in, and they had to ship me one of the then existing low flush toilets they had, instead. It was hideously unreliable, had to be flushed multiple times, cleaned far more frequently than the toilet I’d ordered would have had to have been, and was just generally a pain in the neck. So that I, living in Michigan, with a well and a brand new septic field, wouldn’t aggravate water shortages, I suppose.

    Really, how many people were soured on this technology, by having it forced down their throats before it was really ready?

  13. Gray Woodland: Thanks for the response. I’m sorry if it seemeed like I was making a personal attack. I just do get frustrated by so many folks who try to defuse what is at heart a staight forward common sense economic issue by sending the debate chassing it’s tail.

    Here is a simple example of how government regulation can help. I’m living in sweden presently. Here EU regulations are phasing out high wattage incandescents. No household bulbs over 40 watts in the stores. So I mix up CFLs with incandescents for an overall energy savings. Add to this that the government levys taxes on electricity to include externalized costs that the USA allows to be spread to all of society. The result is I have an incentive to reduce consumption and am gratified to see the effects on my monthly bill. In the US when I was conservative in my consumption it wasn’t much of a difference on my bill because I still had to pay the externalized costs, a large part of the costs like everyone else.

    Oil is much the same here. I pay about $6 per gallon for gasoline. Therefore my and all cars are far more efficient than my car in the USA was so it costs me about the same to drive here. And please understand that my car goes as fast and can pack as much stuff as my american car. There is simply no reason to burn as much gas as americans do. But the guys who sell gas impead regulation of fuel consumption.

    I can look out of this window and see a privately owned wind generator. That turbine is owned by an old swedish farmer. There is no one in the world more financially conservative than a swedish farmer. This is no pie in the sky dreamer who took out a loan to build that generator. He is making money out of that thing evry day. Out of my other window I can see another, larger such generator owned by the komun (analogous to county government). It provides all of the power to the municipal buildings: central offices, maintanance garages, nursing home, hospital, etc. Plugging into the grid to make this work is regulated by the government and no doubt loans are facilitated by govermental intervention. Wind genrators are springing up all over the country. On a recent trip I crossed a large flat land and from one vantage point I counted eleven.

    My point is that if the government doesn’t institute regulations nothing will change. Personal and institutional inertia will keep people from doing the small things and the big things like restructuring the electrical grid to make electric cars practical will be impossible.

    The idea that the US government is more corrupt or less efficiant than private corporations is a myth created and promoted at great expense by people with ulterior motives. The fact that so many in america accept that myth despite so much evidence to the contrary shows the effectiveness of that smear campaign. There are inefficiancies in the government, people with bad motives, people who are not smart people who gat paid more than they are worth. But the government is the only organization that has the power and the mandate to make the changes that we all need to make for our civilization to survive this century. We know the motives of the Koch brothers and their commrads are not bent in the interests of humanity. At least the guys in government have to get votes.

    And now it’s my turn to apologize for going on too long.

  14. Prof. O’Hare–

    If you got the carbon tax you prefer, levied at whatever rate you prefer, do you think that customers would shift sharply away from incandescent lamps? Right, neither do I. A carbon tax would mainly shift electricity generation from coal to gas. It would only slightly decrease electricity consumption; and it’s doubtful that any significant portion of that decrease would come from switching away from incandescent bulbs.

    Why is that? It’s because the benefits of switching are miniscule compared to the offsetting annoyances [aesthethic, safety, etc.]

    So it seems disingenuous for you to suppose that this regulation is somehow a substitute for, or even an element of, a proper grenhouse gas policy. It’s not … a socially-inefficient gesture, dressed up as social progress, that inflicts near-pointless annoyance on voters.

    Which strikes me as a really bad way to build support for curbing greenhouse gases.

  15. PB: “. . . do you think that customers would shift sharply away from incandescent lamps?”

    Yes. They’re doing it now.

    I have a friend, who replaced over 80% of the bulbs in her home, and has realized a substantial reduction in her electric bills.

    Where do people get the idea that prices do not matter? That people are not calculating on these things all the time.

    The same thing is said about gasoline prices, but every time gas prices are up for any length of time, transit ridership goes up, people start searching for driving tips to reduce fuel consumption, they buy smaller cars, with less acceleration, etc.

    All use of energy entails entropy. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. Conservation and efficiency measures are as important as substituting fuels or energy sources.

  16. Speaking as the unhappy owner of a 10-year-old low-flow toilet, I find it pretty irritating that O’Hare calls me names (grinch, grouch, etc.) and can’t admit that the whole policy was a big screw-up. And now I learn from this post that San Francisco has to dump 8.5 million pounds of bleach into the bay each year in order to correct for problems caused by low-flow toilets!

    It does look like the switchover to CFLs will go much better, since we’ve waited long enough that they’re pretty good. But even O’Hare admits that a hefty tax on incandescent bulbs would be a lot better than a ban. So why isn’t that even on the agenda? Granted, Republican anti-tax ideology is mostly to blame, I’m sure, but I don’t see Democrats even proposing the optimal policy of incandescent bulb taxes. What’s up with that?

  17. Bruce Wilder–“Yes. They’re doing it now. I have a friend, who replaced over 80% of the bulbs in her home, and has realized a substantial reduction in her electric bills.”

    Well, unfortunately for the view you’re advocating, your friend is not representative of America.
    CFLs have been stuck at about 25% of the lamp market for the past several years (see link below).
    Which is, I assume, whyProf. O’Hare supports a regulatory mandate … it’s the only way to get people to switch to CFLs.

  18. Passing By says that CFLs have only 25% of the market, which is true, but somewhat misleading. Since CFLs last about 5 times longer, their 25% share of sales implies that more light now comes from CFL bulbs than from incandescent bulbs. In fact, the commercial market has mostly switched away from incandescent.

  19. Ragout –

    Not sure why you say my comment was misleading.
    The CFL/incandescent sales mix has been unchanged for several years.
    That suggests CFLs have a portion of, but are not taking over, the US lamp market (absent regulation).
    Which is all I was claiming.

  20. Betsy says “Brett Bellmore and Hank Hill have common ground.”

    Yup, low-flow toilets are so hated that they’re often mocked in popular culture. And there was an episode of Seinfeld mocking low-flow shower heads. And there are no doubt many other examples. Low-flow toilets are to government regulation as the DMV is to government services: a widely experienced inconvenience that turns people off to the wider project.

  21. I hope CFLs don’t take over the market, because they’re a lousy transitional technology. High-intensity LEDs have no flicker, better spectrum, full brightness at startup, and lower TCO*. Oh, and they’re a technology where smart design can still beat tens of thousands of low-wage workers winding glass tubes around a form by hand.

    * This asterisk is important, because it shows just how strongly market and private regulatory inefficiencies can mess with the introduction of new technologies. The market part, because the damn things last 10-20 years so the purchaser generally doesn’t capture all the benefits (much like longterm health initiatives in a mobile insurance market), and because personal discount rates are so high, especially in thep resence of ongoing product improvement. The private regulatory part, because LED lights have a different division between “bulb” and “socket” than incandescents, so that the rule limiting component temperatures to 90 C (which the envelope of an incandescent bulb couldn’t possibly meet) limits brightness to way less than you could pack in a given space.

  22. Ragout: I think your comparison to the DMV is actually appropriate in a different way. As previous discussions have made clear “the” DMV is actually a very different experience from place to place, with lots of people apparently enjoying the act of complaining about it based on long-outdated and/or highly local information. And no one even taking a moment to compare its behavior to that of large private-sector bureaucracies.

  23. We have tried to switch as much of our household lighting as possible to CFLs. Multiple problems, though, have us largely abandoning the effort.

    Problem: the long-life benefits only apply to lights that are typically left on for long periods of time, not lights that are switched on and off multiple times. In an effort to save electricity we . . . switch the lights off every time we leave a room and do not leave any lights on for long periods of time. So the life of our CFLs are much shorter than the claimed average.

    Problem: Consumers are advised not to use CFLs in enclosed fixtures or in “base-up” fixtures. Again, if that advise is ignored, the average life of the CFL bulb is considerably reduced. That restriction applies to about 70% of our non-specialised light fixtures (ie. non-halogen or not already flourescent).

    Problem: Manufacturing irregularities and a high percentage of bad bulbs. I can’t tell you how many bulbs we’ve had to throw out either immediately or with a day or two of installing them. Reduces the average life, eh?

    Problem: Toxic waste. The challenges involved in disposing of these bulbs are at best a PITA and at worst a massive inconvenience. (And don’t tell me to take them to the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot as we live two hours away from the nearest store of any kind.) Furthermore, the full-on emergency haz-mat procedure necessary to clean up a dropped and/or broken bulb, in a household full of small children and domestic animals, is a serious disincentive to our continued use of them.

    No sale. And I am more than willing to put up with a lot of inconvenience and poor aesthetics to reduce my carbon footprint. My list of good habits is extensive, but CFLs are no longer on the list.

  24. P.S. We have had low-flow toilets for 20 years and been very happy with them. Unfortunately, the kind we installed are no longer available. And in our small town visits, to the DMV (and the post offic)e are actually a pleasure. Finally, pardon my spelling and grammar goofs — the lack of a “preview” function makes those harder to catch, especially with those animals and small children underfoot.)

  25. > Furthermore, the full-on emergency haz-mat procedure
    > necessary to clean up a dropped and/or broken bulb,
    > in a household full of small children and domestic
    > animals, is a serious disincentive to our continued
    > use of them.

    A CFL contains 5 mg of mercury. A standard 48″ shop-light florescent tube manufactured before 1994 contains 48 mg; after 1984 around 20 mg. What did you/do you do with 48″ shop light bulbs that break? Abandon your house?


  26. Anomalous: thanks for expanding your perspective and giving me some more things to think about. I doubt it will come as a surprise that I’m more sanguine about non-governmental action and pessimistic about governmental methods than you are. But I agree with you this far: looking to corporations for salvation is no better. Scoundrels with their government hats on at least have to look for votes, and scoundrels with their corporate hats on at least have to look for customers – but even where the two scoundrels aren’t the very same scoundrel in different stages of their career, they can easily put their heads together to erode even these weak limitations.

    I tackle those issues to clear the ground, and I think they need to be tackled. But they also entail the need to work usefully along at least one of the established lines, or else around them. I’m focused on looking for ways around – not just against – institutionalized scoundrelry. I agree the onus is on people like me to come up with better action and organization there, than we can now show. Hand-washing is really as dirty an option as any.

    As to Sweden, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t do better for a given level of formal government than the USA or the UK. The fact that it’s a popular place to live, at the same time as having stronger consent to collective action through government, suggests to me that the stronger consent’s at least partly earned. And as a libertarian, I have to assume that since the great evil of government lies in coercion, a government more nearly consensual than another is really doing something better. I’d be interested in your thoughts as to where in Swedish society this is coming from, and whether you’ve noticed any downsides to that.

Comments are closed.