“Waiting for Godot”
— by Horatio Algeranon
Something better’s round the bend
Guess I’d better wait
Then again, if we depend
It may be too darned late
1) It’s easier than you think to inconvenience a redneck
Wikipedia reports (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Lighting_Energy_Policy)
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (Pub.L. 110-140) laid out the changes in legislation regarding lighting in the United States in Title III, Subtitle B. In this, the different bulbs being affected by the standards changes are first defined. Along with higher standards being created for bulbs, the ballasts are also required to increase efficiency. It is also outlined within EISA 2007 that there are lighting requirements within public buildings. The General Services Administration (GSA) set minimum energy efficiency standards for leased spaces, which includes energy efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs, including the use of Energy Star and Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) designated products.
EISA 2007 set new performance requirements for certain common light bulbs, requiring that these bulbs become approximately 25-30% more efficient than the light bulbs of 2008 by 2012-2014. Overall, the intent of this is to bring into the market more efficient light bulbs. Some new incandescent products could be introduced by the effective dates of the law, including a bulb by General Electric that will decrease the amount of energy required. Non-incandescent bulbs, such as compact fluorescent (CFL) and light emitting diodes (LED) already meet the Tier I standards introduced. Some companies are working to stop the sales of incandescent bulbs in anticipation of the standards changes. For example, the home decor and furniture company IKEA has phased out the stock and sale of incandescent bulbs at their stores in the US and Canada, starting in August 2011.
Now of course you can anticipate that a certain segment of the society will be outraged. If they want to pay their own money for a decent looking light bulb they don’t want no (%^&**&^%*) CFL bulb instead. (I saw a “better dead than Prius” bumper sticker yesterday.)
But until I actually spent a few months in the Texas countryside it didn’t occur to me that rednecks and libertarians use things in ways you don’t anticipate. For instance, there’s usually a lightbulb in the pumphouse at a Texas groundwater pump. This is not to make nighttime work easier – these “houses” are too small to enter anyway. No, the bulb is there to provide heat on the occasional freezing nights. An LED bulb will not suit. The bulb is valuable in that application because of its inefficiency, not despite it.
To say to a southland farmer that you can’t have a 100 watt bulb is to say you need some fancy custom solution to a problem that used to be solved with a bulb and a socket. This is a problem that city folk don’t have and don’t think of. Regulations crimp creativity – which is why underregulated Americans invent things.
“People make fun of a redneck ’til their car needs fixin'”
– overheard from a redneck
2) The private sector can accomplish miracles
Have you actually seen the new LED bulbs and fixtures? For most applications they are amazing! They are so power frugal and the light is pure and white, they don’t flicker, they respond quickly, they last forever, and they don’t shatter.
Here is where I agree with the Breakthrough Boys and disagree with the radical greens. Those who claim that there are no technical solutions to our problems have it wrong; human technical capacities are immense. The new LED bulb is a case in point.
3) The private sector will do nothing unless pushed
But why now? Why was the lightbulb basically the same since it was invented, with the minor exception of the frosted glass which came in half a century ago?
LEDs have been in commercial production since 1968. Again, almost a half century. Why weren’t they developed as light ing sources sooner?
It’s true that progress happens at the rate it happens. Some things can’t happen faster. No amount of money could have caused LED lighting to be practical in 1955, and probably not in 1985 either. But it’s obvious that regulatory pressure increased the incentive to dedicate engineers to develop something better than those nasty conpact fluorescents.
4) Rednecks push back
Of course, distrust for authority has always been a dominant streak in humans and in particular in the American personality. In some ways this is fortunate for us all –
America is problematic enough as the sole superpower, but imagine how much worse it might be if the citizens actually trusted their government.
And indeed, America is fundamentally ironic. Distrust of authority is the prime authority in America, enshrined in the constitution.
So, perhaps it’s only in America that freedom would be explicitly invoked in reversing lighting policy. HR 849 (2011) is entitled the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act”!
Proposed by Michelle Bachmann, it defanged the EISA not by reversing it but by encrusting it in layers of bureaucracy. Wikipedia again:
This [required] report would need to include information that proves that: (1) consumers will obtain a net savings in terms of dollars spent on monthly electric bills and expenses for new light fixtures to accommodate the use of the light bulbs required by such provisions, compared to dollars spent before their enactment; (2) the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs required by such provisions will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by 20% in the United States by 2025; and (3) such phase-out will not pose any health risks, including risks associated with mercury containment in certain light bulbs, to consumers of the general public, including health risks with respect to hospitals, schools, day care centers, mental health facilities, and nursing homes.
Provision 2 seems implausible enough as to make the whole enterprise impossible. Fortunately this law was not passed.
Nevertheless In December 2011, the U.S. Congress defunded enforcement of EISA light-bulb performance requirements as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in the 2012 federal budget.
5) The Pushback can be too late
ABC News has this:
It was a bipartisan idea, but conservatives have come to hate it. It wasn’t just that the new bulbs are uglier, dimmer and more expensive, but that the federal government was dictating what kind of light bulb consumers could buy.
“The American people want less government intrusion into their lives, not more, and that includes staying out of their personal light bulb choices,” said GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who, as a member of the House, introduced a bill to roll back the incandescent ban. So today Congress took the teeth out of the incandescent ban by eliminating the funds the Department of Energy would need to enforce it. But what many Republicans are celebrating as a win for individuals’ light-bulb-choosing freedom will probably not save the energy-guzzling bulbs from disappearing off store shelves.
“The industry has moved on,” said Larry Lauck, a spokesman for the American Lighting Association. Lauck said U.S. light bulb manufacturers have already “retooled” their
production lines to build more efficient bulbs”
It’s important to understand how this argument from “freedom” resonates with rural people more than with urban ones. To the urban lifestyle, this is a small hit and a small inconvenience in exchange for a safer and more sustainable commons. The rural person has a bigger property with more fixtures, more jury-rigged setups where light bulbs work as low wattage electric heaters, and who knows what else. And the rural person has far less sense of a need for a workable common space.
In general, the more you are already living as a node in a large system, the less rule changes impinge on you and the more they are likely to benefit you. It is not entirely
unreasonable that the rural population is more offended by regulations that effect their daily lives; they are more affected by them, and more intruded upon.
It’s one thing to believe that we need clean flowing water. It’s another to have a bureaucrat tromping on your spread trying to decide which trickles count as part of the state drainage system.
This imbalance of regulatory impact is something we need to remember in striving for a carbon neutral future as well.
But while Bachmann got some mileage out of this business and the regulations are not practically enforced, in the end the regulatory push was enough. And now we have lots of really good LED bulbs.
6) Procrastination sometimes pays
Another point that reflects on the larger carbon emissions issue is the oft stated position by the techno-optimists that we ought to drag our feet as long as possible and encourage the development of new technologies meanwhile.
Those of us who were quick to replace our incandescents with CFLs now have a minor explicit investment in somewhat unpleasant lighting, as well as an implicit waste disposal which is a significant externality.( http://www2.epa.gov/cfl/cleaning-broken-cfl http://www2.epa.gov/cfl/recycling-and-disposal-after-cfl-burns-out#important )
Those of us who dragged our feet can just meander down to our local hardware store and get lightbulbs that are in every way superior and have an almost infinite useful lifetime. So our reticence in buying the early replacements has been rewarded rather than punished.
This is a small concern, but it has much larger echoes in the big picture.
Maybe some day, perhaps even soon, energy storage will become cheap. Certainly there are motivated and talented teams competing to find a way to make that happen. At that point, it will become very easy to invest in renewables.
Those who would prefer a nuclear-free and carbon-free future may be well advised to support natural gas as a bridge fuel to that happy possible future day when energy storage becomes cost effective and a pure renewables solution then becomes feasible. Rushing to true carbon neutrality is not actually possible without nuclear power. Few do take this position, of course, but that’s because complex positions don’t motivate movements. (Lest you think I’ve gone 100% Breakthrough Institute on this, read on.)
For one thing, there’s a risk, of course. Those of us who coveted LED lighting had no way of being certain that it would ever be cost effective, though there was no fundamental reason that it couldn’t. And of course, we did our damage with the incandescents in the meanwhile.
7) Inertia is the problem
We have just installed a whole bunch of new fixtures in our unit, and they are all LED fixtures. And we have replaced a few of our incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. We intend to replace almost all of them (except on a pair of lamps that we like to run on a dimmer at very low levels).
The delay is just that somewhere we have a piece of plastic that entitles us to a store credit at Lowe’s, a major hardware chain around here which we don’t usually frequent. This would be a perfect application of the credit. But until we establish that we don’t know where it is, we are demotivated to go replace the bulbs!
In the large, the effort to replace fossil fuel energy is enormous even when alternatives exist. Certainly the people with billions invested in coal (and now tar sand and shale) production will have more serious motivations to drag their feet than a $100 store credit.
8) The Future is not evenly distributed
As science fiction writer William Gibson famously said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
LEDs are here, in production, and vastly superior to either incandescents and fluorescents in most home and office applications. (Fluorescents may suffice and be more cost effective in warehouses.)
But there are a lot of bulbs out there. The larger the proportion of the space you manage to your cash flow, the more it will cost you to replace the bulbs. Still worse are commercial and office settings where non-compact fluorescents continue to inflict themselves on people’s daily lives.
The fact that it is possible to have something better doesn’t make it a high priority to have something better. Incandescents will continue to waste energy and fluorescents to pollute, and both to create nasty glass shards, for a long time to come.
Even though the LEDs are better, they do not immediately replace all the other bulbs.
9) Invention is not enough. Even deployment is not enough.
The problem with carbon emissions is not the same as the problem with lightbulbs. Replacing a good fraction of lightbulbs with LEDs is a big win both for the consumer and for the global collective interest.
But replacing some fossil fuels with renewables and/or nuclear is not enough. We are already deploying quite a lot of wind in Texas, but Texas is hardly exemplary in its energy direction.
The problem is not deploying renewables. The problem is shutting down carbon emissions.
We have to replace, pretty much, 100% (counting sequestration as possibly part of the replacement). We can do this, despite may people’s intuitions, without a huge change in lifestyle, and in the end most of us will be better off, though as with lightbulbs, a few interests will be worse off and the range of available choices will effectively shrink a bit. It’s not tragic for anybody.
If we don’t do the replacement, though, it will eventually be tragic for everybody.
This is where the whole Breakthrough argument (that we simply need to fund innovation and stand back) breaks down. Finding alternatives is necessary and good, but it is not
enough. Deploying alternatives, even though they are better on almost all counts, is not enough. We actually have to shut down the old system, cold. And without regulation, it’s hard to imagine that happening fast enough.
The fossil fuel industry needs to come up with near-perfect sequestration or it needs to shut down. It won’t volunteer to do that. It can’t. Parts of it will pretend to be cooperative if only we make “reasonable” demands, and parts of it will sneak around and subvert what needs to be done. Both of these efforts are in full force nowadays. But it’s a business, a big business, the biggest business ever. The purpose of a corporation is to maximize return on investment. Sometimes that aligns with the common interest (a healthy economy, etc.) but when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Having techniques to keep humanity safe and comfortable without destroying the world is only half the battle.
The lightbulb story yields several lessons about the larger climate issue. Regulation always feels unfair to somebody. Sometimes it works spectacularly anyway, because engineers are immensely capable. But without the regulation, neither the development of innovations nor their deployment will happen fast enough.