Compact Fluorescent Lights and the Environment

I’m highly interested in the ‘Green’ movement and the things that we are supposed to be doing that will help mitigate humanities continued impact on the ecosystem. However, I question a lot of the things that the green movement pushes, which sometimes seem like they might cause more damage over the long term than less. For instance ‘compostable’ plastics, which tend to be made from soy. I suspect these plastics require a lot of water in the processing, which very likely negates any benefit to them being able to avoid the landfill (though most almost certainly end up in landfills).

I’ve felt similarly about Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Light Bulbs for a while, knowing that the cost of production was going to be dramatically higher than for traditional incandescents, but being unsure that the energy savings in use would be enough to make up for it. Then, I saw one of the best written contributory articles to our local co-op newsletter, which for those who download the newsletter at the previous link, can find on page 36 of the PDF.

The article in question looks at this issue in a pretty complete way, presenting several interesting statistics:

  1. Making a CFL takes 5 times the energy of an incandescent, but you’ll need 6-10 incandescents for each CFL.
  2. The energy output of incandescents over a single CFL would require generating 200 pounds of carbon over the life of the CFL.
  3. A CFL contains ~5mg of mercury, and powering that bulb with coal (over it’s life) generates another 2.4mg of mercury into the environment, however, Incandescents would require 10mg of mercury output from a coal-fired plant. This is further mitigated by the relative ease of recycling CFLs.

Now, here in the Pacific Northwest, mots of our energy needs are met by hydroelectric, not coal, but still the proven energy savings of the bulbs have kept them an attractive option, but it’s nice that the statistics show that this is actually a real improvement we can make, that’s not only ‘green’, but saves money as well.

In many ways, I’m more interested in LED lighting, though it’s hard to find in the stores. LED bulbs have the potential to be even better over the long term than CFLs, Currently, LED bulbs last 5 times longer than CFLs, use less than half the energy, but cost about 10 times more. However, what I don’t know is how that translates into their production impact. Still, it’s an interesting technology I plan to watch.