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Kelpie Wilson: Death to the Incandescent

Death to the Incandescent

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 28 August 2006

People are finally starting to take to the streets to protest climate change. But for those who won't or can't do that, there are plenty of other actions you can take now to damp down climate change.

On Saturday, August 26, tied to the anniversary of Katrina, climate activists sponsored a demonstration at the headquarters of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Mike Tidwell, director of the US Climate Emergency Council, explained why the event was held in front of NOAA: "Over the past year there have been six scientific studies, which have shown a connection between global warming and stronger, more destructive Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Yet the leadership of NOAA openly denies this connection and censors its own scientists."

On Friday, August 25th, people gathered in front of the Capitol in Austin, Texas, to protest expedited permits for 17 new coal-fired power plants. In the heat of one of the hottest summers ever, protestors said "no" to more asthma, mercury pollution and greenhouse gasses.

Those Texas coal plants are part of a surge of new "merchant" coal power plants being proposed. These plants aren't planned to meet the energy demand of specific communities, rather they are built on speculation to serve the spot power market. A coal plant sited inexpensively in rural Iowa will send power to Chicago while spewing pollution over local corn fields and farmers.

With 153 new coal plants on the drawing board right now, the Energy Information Administration projects a 66 percent increase in coal-based power production and a 43 percent increase in CO2 emissions by 2030.

Meanwhile, people in Vermont are planning a five-day march across the state beginning on August 31, called, "The Road Less Traveled: Vermonters Walking Toward a Clean Energy Future." The walk will culminate in a Labor Day "Meeting on the Green" with political candidates at Burlington's City Hall Park.

Environmental writer Bill McKibben, who plans to attend the Vermont walk (you can sponsor him here), says protest is the next step for those concerned citizens who have already done things like change their light bulbs, buy locally grown food, and purchase a hybrid vehicle.

But let's stop right there. How many of us have even done the first thing on the list, change our light bulbs?

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, lighting is responsible for about a fourth of the electricity consumed in the United States, of which 20 percent goes to extra air conditioning to remove unwanted heat given off by light bulbs. More than 90 percent of the energy consumed by a standard incandescent bulb is given off as heat, while only 10 percent is converted into light. That's a 10 percent efficiency of converting electricity to light.

By contrast, a compact fluorescent (CF) light bulb is from 35 percent to 66 percent efficient, depending on the design. The new LED lights are even more efficient. By one estimate, if every American household changed just three incandescent light bulbs to CF bulbs, we could eliminate 11 fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

If we can stop even a fraction of those new coal plants being built just by changing our light bulbs, shouldn't we do it already? And why haven't we banned the incandescent bulb yet? When we learned that leaded gas was poisoning kids' brains, we phased it out. Those bulbs are poisoning our kids' future.

But as long as the old-fashioned filament bulb sits there on the store shelves, clear or frosted, white or colored, cheap and abundant, there will always be some of us who will take them home and screw them in.

That's why we need to ban the bulb. It's the kind of political action we could be marching and protesting about. There is an organization working in Britain to ban the incandescent bulb, but I don't know of a serious effort in the US.

And maybe an outright ban isn't the most politically savvy approach in the USA, where we have this nutty idea that we have a God-given right to drive Hummers and own things like 72-inch plasma TVs and jet skis. So fine. A big fat carbon tax on incandescents will do the job. There is a good discussion of this issue at, along with some thoughts on recycling CF bulbs (they contain mercury) and the superior virtues of LED lights.

Now is definitely the time to bring these issues up.

The California legislature adjourns for the year on Thursday, so this week will be the last chance for California to pass Governor Schwarzenegger's global warming bill. A cap and trade bill, it would mandate that all businesses reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent by the year 2020. An important companion bill would bar California utilities from buying electricity from out-of-state power plants that don't cap emissions. That would force more than two dozen coal-fired plants under development in the West to adopt non-polluting technologies or lose access to the California market.

And even bigger opportunities are on the horizon. Last Thursday, California Senator Diane Feinstein outlined the Democrats' thinking on climate change policy, describing a legislative package she intends to introduce in the next Congress in January. The bills would increase car mileage standards and offer incentives for power producers to meet emission standards. She called for a 70 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels as what is needed to begin stabilizing the atmosphere.

Senator Feinstein said, "It is time to stop talking and to begin acting," but the details, including the strength of "incentives" have yet to be worked out, and there will be a lot of pressure on the Democrats from industry to avoid mandatory caps.

Businesses are lobbying hard against the California global warming bill, saying that emission caps will just drive business to their competitors in other states. That's why ultimately federal emission caps are essential.

When solid carbon emissions caps are in place, most likely your utility will either buy CF light bulbs for you or give you a rebate. It will make economic sense. But don't wait until then because there are lots of other things you will need to do to save energy - everything from weatherizing your home to buying more energy efficient appliances. Here's a handy To Do List for you.

Buy those light bulbs now. We've got to get going on the little things, because we simply have to start somewhere.

Chaos theory affirms that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can set off a chain of events that causes a tornado in Kansas.

In the same way, it is perfectly possible that a person in Chicago who changes a light bulb can prevent a hurricane in Florida, or at least save a rural community in Iowa from a disruptive and toxic coal-fired power plant.

And now, just before another national election, when the political winds blow fitfully, is the time when each small voice raised in favor of a new low-carbon economy can make a big difference.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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