Are we trading energy conservation for toxic air emissions?

Oct 01, 2008

A team of Yale scientists has found that certain countries and some U.S. states stand to benefit from the use of compact fluorescent lighting more than others in the fight against global warming. Some places may even produce more mercury emissions by switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lighting.

The study, which appears online October 1 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, looked at all 50 states and 130 countries to determine the impact of fluorescent lighting on total mercury emissions in those regions.

Estonia, which relies heavily on coal-powered energy generation, tops the list as the country that would see the greatest reduction in mercury emissions for every incandescent bulb it replaces with a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). However, given its similar reliance on coal-fired plants, coupled with its huge population, China stands to reduce its mercury emissions by the greatest overall amount. Other countries near the top of the list include Romania, Bulgaria and Greece; within the U.S., North Dakota, New Mexico and West Virginia have the greatest potential to reduce their mercury emissions.

But much of South America, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe, along with Alaska, California, Oregon, Idaho and several New England states, would actually increase their mercury emissions by making the switch from incandescent to fluorescent lighting. The results depend on a complex relationship between a number of factors, including how dependent a region is on coal-powered energy generation, the chemical makeup of the coal used in those plants, and existing recycling programs for CFLs.

"Compact fluorescent lighting is an area where we're really pushing this alternative and all these policies are being enacted, but we're not looking at the potential unintended consequences of what we're doing," said study author Julie Beth Zimmerman, an assistant professor in Yale's Department of Chemical Engineering and its School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Touted as a greener alternative to traditional lighting, CFLs are about four times more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. This increased efficiency lessens the energy demand on generating stations powered by fossil fuels and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the amount of packaging and old light bulbs that end up in landfills. But unlike incandescent light bulbs, CFLs contain mercury, a toxin with potentially hazardous effects that can be released during manufacturing and disposal.

"It's always good to promote energy efficiency, but it's always a tradeoff," said lead author Matthew Eckelman, a graduate student in Yale's Department of Chemistry and the Center for Industrial Ecology. "You may get a lower energy bill at home, but you don't see the emissions or the runoff downstream."

While the researchers stress that their study isn't an excuse to ignore the energy problem and stick with old, inefficient technologies, they caution that nation-wide strategies such as recent bans on incandescent bulbs, adopted by several countries including the U.S., may be too general. "All sustainability issues are local," said Zimmerman. "We need to ask if we should be making decisions on a national level, or if this is something better left to local governments."

Source: Yale University

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User comments : 13

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Velanarris
3 / 5 (11) Oct 01, 2008
The power plant generates the same amount of electricity whether it's being used or not from what I understand.

I see the value of CFL but I don't see how it would lower emissions unless it's widely adopted and results in the closing down of some power stations.
Lord_jag
2.3 / 5 (8) Oct 01, 2008
The single stage peak driving coal plants can be turned on and off as need requires. If a large portion of people used CFL's, we could turn off these plants more often, reducing emmision.

If nothing else, if we reduce our needs enough, then we won't have to build many more power plants to keep up with our ever increasing energy demands.
tpb
3.2 / 5 (6) Oct 01, 2008
The CFL bulbs built in China(nearly all) have uncontrolled amounts of mercury in them.
From bulb to bulb and manufacturer to manufacturer the amount of mercury varies at least 4 to 1.
If people are really concerned about mercury from these bulbs, the "west" should force much stricter controls on the amount of mercury contained in the CFL bulbs they import from China.
Velanarris
3 / 5 (7) Oct 01, 2008
The CFL bulbs built in China(nearly all) have uncontrolled amounts of mercury in them.
From bulb to bulb and manufacturer to manufacturer the amount of mercury varies at least 4 to 1.
If people are really concerned about mercury from these bulbs, the "west" should force much stricter controls on the amount of mercury contained in the CFL bulbs they import from China.


Which would preclude them from wide adoption due to drastic increases in pricing. You'd effectively price the solution right off the market.
GIR
4.6 / 5 (8) Oct 01, 2008
The power plant generates the same amount of electricity whether it's being used or not from what I understand.

I see the value of CFL but I don't see how it would lower emissions unless it's widely adopted and results in the closing down of some power stations.


The single stage peak driving coal plants can be turned on and off as need requires. If a large portion of people used CFL's, we could turn off these plants more often, reducing emmision.

If nothing else, if we reduce our needs enough, then we won't have to build many more power plants to keep up with our ever increasing energy demands.


Power companies use a complex load forecasting program to estimate the future generation needed coupled with extensive telemetry to monitor real time power flow. These two factors (along with others to account for the fact the grid is interconnected) drive Automatic Generation Control (AGC).

Coal fire plants do not have to be run at 100%. I just visited one with generators running at approx. 865MW out 1000MW. While they can not react quickly the output can be adjusted.

If enough people used CFLs to affect the forecasted load then plants with the ability to adjust their output would.


gopher65
4 / 5 (4) Oct 01, 2008
I still say just wait 2 years and switch everything from incandescents straight to LEDs. They are better in every way than CFLs. Course, neither CFLs nor LEDs will ever have the awesome colour of a near-blackbody radiation source (such as incandescents), but ehhh, such is life.
GrayMouser
4.8 / 5 (4) Oct 01, 2008
One thing I don't understand is the sudden interest in mercury from coal fired plants. Many(!) years ago I had to do a paper for a chemistry class and I found that the amount of nickel coming from coal fired plants was around 55 tons a year (in to the air) and it is VERY toxic when inhaled.

Nobody ever seems worried about it.
barakn
2.7 / 5 (7) Oct 01, 2008
GrayMouser has a point there. Why have no other "heavy" metals been included in this analysis? I don't think it's right to limit the comparison to the one nasty element released from both coal and CFLs and ignore the emission of other nasty stuff.
menkaur
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 02, 2008
kill yourself - save the planet
Glis
3.3 / 5 (7) Oct 02, 2008
We're focusing on CO2 emissions with no reguard actually harmful emissions and pollutants. When something becomes a buzz word there is no stopping it. mercury for CO2 reduction? I understand that there are many other toxins from powerplants, but the CO2 freakout is what's driving this insanity.
Ulg
not rated yet Oct 02, 2008
" But unlike incandescent light bulbs, CFLs contain mercury, a toxin with potentially hazardous effects that can be released during manufacturing and disposal. "

Processing of tungsten to create filaments release more mercury then if compact fluorescent bulbs are improperly disposed off at least in respect of terms for lighting per square foot.

While this does varying effects overall for differing regions the simple fact remains one incandescent bulb has released more mercury pollution sitting on the shelf of a store then the counterpart carelessly tossed into the garbage after being fully used. Simply due to the nature of creating it. While it could be possible to be cleaner it is not for the time being.
barakn
3 / 5 (4) Oct 05, 2008
Processing of tungsten to create filaments release more mercury then if compact fluorescent bulbs are improperly disposed off

Source?
Velanarris
3 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2008
Processing of tungsten to create filaments release more mercury then if compact fluorescent bulbs are improperly disposed off at least in respect of terms for lighting per square foot.

While this does varying effects overall for differing regions the simple fact remains one incandescent bulb has released more mercury pollution sitting on the shelf of a store then the counterpart carelessly tossed into the garbage after being fully used. Simply due to the nature of creating it. While it could be possible to be cleaner it is not for the time being.


I think you mean cobalt, manganese or maybe ammonia. There's no mercury used in Tungsten processing.