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CFLs - A "Feel Good" Alternative?

If we are concerned about Global Climate Change, and are sincere in attempting to reduce our energy consumption and emissions of greenhouse gases, we must ensure that we compare the total energy consumption and emissions over the entire life cycles of current products and any proposed alternatives rather than just the actual period of usage. We must evaluate and compare the energy consumption and emissions during the total production cycle of the product and its components, the packaging, transportation, distribution and retailing, usage and finally the disposal/recycling at the end of its useful life. To do otherwise can be both misleading, or dishonest, and may result in the adoption/promotion of products that do more harm than good.

Whenever we are faced with a problem, there is always a tendency to rush into "solutions" that are readily available and require little, or no, sacrifice or impact upon the populace. Such solutions are especially popular with our political leaders since they can be seen as taking immediate action to resolve our concerns, and most will not be around long enough to be held accountable for their decisions. However, unless carefully considered many such "quick" or "feel good" fixes may have dire long-term consequences. Such may be the case with Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFLs) as a replacement for the standard incandescent light bulbs.

If the objective is just to reduce the amount of electricity consumed within an individual house, CFLs can be a viable alternative as they do consume less energy per unit of light output than comparable incandescent bulbs. However, if the object is to reduce the factors contributing to Global Climate Change, then CFLs may not be good alternative to incandescent bulbs.

A standard fluorescent lighting system consists of a ballast (transformer), a starter and the fluorescent tube. In addition to miniaturizing the components, CFLs combine the three separate components into one unit, with the ballast and the starter replaced by electronics contained within the ceramic base of the bulb. Thus CFLs are far more complex than incandescent bulbs and since they are more difficult and expensive to manufacture they are primarily made in developing nations with lower labor costs. Due to their complexity, and the number of included parts, the energy required to produce a CFL must be many times greater than required for an incandescent bulb. Additionally, since CFLs are typically manufactured at considerable distance from where they will be used, added energy for transportation is also required.

The fact that CFLs consist of several components means that the life of the product will depend upon the life of either the electronics or the tube; in contrast with standard fluorescent light systems failure of either component requires replacement of the entire unit. Anecdotal evidence has most CFLs failures as being due to the electronic components. Electronic failures may be due to voltage fluctuations, caused by other equipment on the same circuit or outside disturbances, or the frequent turning on and off. Since CFL's draw a higher current when starting, frequent starting may also lower overall energy efficiency. Thus CFLs may not be suitable for such applications as closet lighting were they are only on for a short duration.

In usage, my experience has been that as is typical of fluorescent bulbs in general, the light intensity of CFLs declines and the color spectrum shifts, resulting in less white light necessary for reading and other activities. In contrast, an incandescent bulb tends to retain its intensity and color throughout its life. Thus while CFLs may have a longer physical life than incandescent bulbs, I find their useful life to be much shorter; thus requiring more CFLs to obtain the same number of hours of useful light, which multiplies the manufacturing/transportation/retailing and disposal energy consumption to obtain a given period of useful light.

After the CFL burns out, it will still consume the energy required for its disposal. Since CFLs contain mercury in their tubes, and other hazardous elements in their electronics, most jurisdictions require that they be properly recycled, or reclaimed. And due to the nature of their construction, CFLs must first be disassembled into their individual electronic and light tube components before they can be properly recycled, which is both labor and energy consumptive.

It is extraordinary difficult to accurately quantify the total energy consumed any product during its entire life cycle from the manufacturing of its components to its ultimate disposal, and techniques for doing so are in their infancy. However, such some system to quantify total life energy consumption is necessary to the comparisons for making scientifically sound and rational policy and for individual purchase decisions.

Common sense would tell us that CFLs have the potential to reduce the electricity consumption at the individual point of usage, but only at a higher monetary cost (especially when considering that multiple units may be required, when compared to alternatives); and will definitely far more energy for their manufacture, transportation, and disposal than the incandescent bulbs they are intended to replace. Their chief utility may not lie in the reduction of energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases, but rather in permitting our political leaders to assume a myopic view and encourage the adoption of CFS, and thus be seen as taking action to reduce global climate change; and in appeasing the guilt of individual consumers. In reality, far more energy might be saved, and fewer greenhouse gases emitted if we all just turned off unneeded lights, used bulbs of wattage appropriate to the task, and bought long-life bulbs. These actions would reduce total life-of-product energy consumption, as well as the energy consumed in our individual homes; and would permit us to honestly "feel good" about our actions.

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