Tamara J Gordy

Facilitating sustainable environmental and social impact


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Electricity in Ecuador

While poking around the wide world web ahead of an upcoming trip to Ecuador, I found a slideshare showing ways electricity is used there. Love that the author shared the visual story.

She reports that a typical monthly power bill in the Amazon is $15 on an average salary of $250.

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Turn Off, Replace, or Trudge Forward?

Buying newer more efficient appliances and lights is one easy way to achieve energy efficiency. But is it always the best choice?

Replacing appliances and things has an impact too. Something is going to happen to the old stuff, plus there are pocketbook and lifecycle costs associated with the replacement.

My last blog post encouraged people to replace incandescent Christmas lights with new LEDs. In response, JMR raised a really good question:

Thanks for the info Tamara. I think the energy savings of LED’s are great… and I think there is going to be a lot of waste in the world if everyone throws out their holiday lights. How do you balance this need to limit energy consumption while equally limiting waste and unnecessary consumption.

I’d like to tackle a couple ways to look at this question of keep versus replace.

The first option is simply to do without Christmas lights. From a consumption or environmental point of view, going light-free is a hands down winner. That said, it’s not for everybody. Instead of being the Party of No Fun, my hope is that people are drawn to all the “Yes, and” choices that are opening up because manufacturers are offering so many greener choices.

If you want lights, then I conclude that replacing is the better option from a money and environmental standpoint. The short version is that strands of lights don’t produce much waste, the energy savings is significant (on the order of 70 – 90% improvement), and the replacement cost is small. Other situations are tougher — Like should I replace my 10-year old, perfectly fine 27 mph car with a new or newer hybrid or all-electric?

For a lot of materials, the biggest lifecycle impact is in resource extraction and production. For those, the scale tips toward keeping them. In the case of the holiday lights, my understanding is that the bigger impact occurs during actual use, so the scale weighs toward replacing.

Do you agree? Disagree? I welcome people to share ideas around how they make sustainable choices. We could learn so much from each other.

Those who like short answers please STOP here.

If you are interested in the long, info-nerd version, then read on…

One could look at it thru a garbage lens.

Tossing perfectly functional lights is indeed wasteful. The bright side (no pun intended) is that the amount of waste is small and the material are not toxic. While the glass and metal components are technically recyclable, unfortunately there is no market for old light strands to make recycling happen.

Working lights could be donated to Goodwill or re-gifted, but it is reasonable to ask whether it is really better for the environment to shift the energy hog problem down the line to somebody else. Programs like Cash for Clunkers looked at the same problem for cars, and decided to take gas-guzzling polluters off the road once and for all. You can find similar incentives to put old energy-hogging refrigerators out of service too.

It took several hazardous components to make the lights, but those chemicals are pretty well bound up and will not produce measurable impacts as they take hundreds of years to degrade in a landfill. If they were to end up in an incinerator, the plastic portion would help by adding thermal content, but the metal would be released. A large portion of the metals will become bound to particulate matter, and, depending on the type of pollution control system, a large portion will become part of the non-hazardous bottom ash and a smaller potion will show up as hazardous fly ash. The glass becomes slag. Over time, slag builds up to be an expensive maintenance headache. In this case, the glass volume is too tiny to matter. There would be air emissions of metals and plastic components, but, again, they would be too small to measure.

Another way to compare the impact would be to estimate the environmental cost of kilowatts saved vs. kilowatts burned and compare that to the environmental cost of buying new lights plus disposal of the old ones. The best methodology for this is probably a combination of Lifecycle Assessment and looking up emissions factors. I did compile a comparison of Lifecycle Assessment Tools once, but there are people far better suited than me to actually perform the complicated analysis.

As far as non-emissions impacts of energy, one could consider that hydro damages rivers, commercial and non-commercial fisheries, and has other habitat impacts, and mining and transporting coal has large impacts as well. In one sense, the non-emissions impacts could be considered “sunk costs”. In other words, the incremental energy difference associated with my lights won’t change them because the damage was already done.

If that is true, then I could focus on emissions from using energy as the most relevant way to differentiate between keeping or replacing. Energy emissions factors vary depending on the energy mix where you live – In my area it is 48% coal and 52% hydro. As such my power has lower emissions than it would in places that are more fossil-fuel dependent. Even so, burning coal pollutes. It puts out CAPS (Common Air Pollutants) like Carbon Monoxide, Ground-level Ozone, Lead, Nitrogen Oxides, Particulate Matter, and Sulfur Dioxide, HAPS (Hazardous Air Pollutants) like Metals (Mercury, Arsenic, Chromium, Nickel, etc.) Volatile Organics, Acid Gases, and Greenhouse Gases.

There are pollution numbers associated with waste disposal, but there is not a way to relate a particular piece of waste to downstream emissions. I can confidently say that the numbers involved are very, very small, but I can’t tell you what they are. Lifecycle analysis can shed light on the impacts of producing the new lights. The impacts are real, and should definitely be considered.

My best estimate is that the impacts of disposal and consumption are dwarfed by the ongoing impact of burning excess energy for this particular situation. That is not always the case though. Like JMR reminds us, asking whether to replace or to keep is always a good idea. For a lot of materials, the biggest lifecycle impact is in resource extraction and production. For such items, the scale would tip toward keeping it.


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As Easy as Screwing In A Lightbulb

Traditional incandescent light bulbs waste 90% of their energy as heat instead of light. If you’ve ever burned your fingers, you’ve experienced it for yourself. We turn on light bulbs when we want light, but when we do it Edison-style, most of the energy is wasted. Its an upside-down system. In order to get light, we get stuck paying for really inefficient heat, even when it is all hot and we don’t want any.

Luckily American, Asian, and European lighting manufacturers have responded to the challenge with an unprecedented wave of innovation and new products. We can light our homes, offices, factories, and streets better than ever. And we will save money and energy while doing it. The US Dept of Energy says that people who swap 15 inefficient incandescent bulbs for new energy-savers will save, on average, $50 a year in energy bills. My personal electricity use fell by 15% after replacing the busiest bulbs in my house.

Today you can buy bulbs that last really long for hard to reach spaces, bulbs with a romantic or functional mood, bulbs with accurate color rendering (artists and fashionistas, rejoice!), bulbs good for reading, bulbs for ambient light or spotlights for showcasing merchandise or art, bulbs for retrofits or for new fixtures, bulbs that dim, and bulb shapes designed for lamps, recessed cans, bathroom fixtures, chandeliers, and the great outdoors.

Beginning in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission required new Lighting Facts Labels to help us navigate the new choices. In the past light labels made us choose based on the wattage, which is a measure of how much energy the bulb uses. By way of contrast, the new labels look a lot like the familiar nutrition labels on packaged food. They tell us things that are way more relevant to the purchasing decision. Now everyone can easily see and compare:

  • Brightness, shown in lumens. 800 lumens is about the same as a 60W incandescent. 1,100 lumens is about equal to a 75W.
  • Estimated annual energy cost
  • Life expectancy, in years
  • Whether the bulb meets ENERGY STAR standards (generally required to qualify for utility incentive programs)
  • The appearance or “color temperature “of the light. This is measured in degrees Kelvin, where something in the 5,000 – 6,000K range is considered cool and 2,500 – 3,200K is warm. The range of color temperatures goes beyond soft white or regular. Choices are amazing. You can completely change the aesthetics of a room with different color temps, without necessarily changing the amount of actual light. If you always hated the blue-ish nonfat milk look of the early CFLs, you may be pleasantly surprised by the warmth and beauty of a 2,900K lamp. Buy several as samples to take home and compare the effect. Then pick your favorite.
  • How many watts it uses. Same as the familiar energy-use measurement from the old style labels.
  • Whether it contains mercury (CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, far less than in the past. If it’s in there, return it for free to Lowe’s or Home Depot or a community household hazardous waste facility.

Posted here are some sample labels for bulbs that put out a little over 800 lumens. Can you tell which one gives you more light for your energy money?

One super-easy trick to help you pick is to choose ENERGY STAR bulbs. An ENERGY STAR qualified light bulb:

  • Saves money, about $6 a year in electricity costs and can save more than $40 over its lifetime
  • Certified by a third party to meet strict performance requirements
  • Uses about 75% less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer
  • Produces about 75% less heat, so it’s safer to operate and can cut energy costs associated with home cooling