Monday, July 10, 2006

Less Than The Least We Can Do

by Tom Bozzo

From the department of Damn Straight, Matt Stoller at MyDD on one line of global warming apologism:
[Bush is] also casting himself as the hero of the [global warming] story. You see, he's also personally solving the problem of global warming by advancing new technologies like hydrogen cars. The 'new technology' argument is something that we've seen other bad faith actors use, like apologist Robert Samuelson in his claim [link is to offending op-ed column] that we are helpless without engineering breakthroughs... [T]echnology is the result of policy decisions, and technology is not magic. If you don't make policy decisions that encourage the development and deployment of carbon reducing technology, it's not going to be developed and deployed.
Very true. If all we need is more electricity that looks cheap in terms of market prices, all we'd have to do is burn lots more coal.

There's a lot of what can only be described as pointless wanking going on while the decider-in-chief weighs the global warming evidence. (Stop laughing at the thought.) What would make most economists relatively happy, by using prices as the signaling method, would be a stiff carbon tax. In addition to encouraging the development of various renewables, carbon taxation would certainly put the 'clean coal' movement's best minds, if indeed there are any working outside the PR field, seriously on the problem of actually figuring out how to sequester carbon dioxide emissions.

But price-based incentives alone can't do everything. A non-trivial problem is that some people can't, or won't, take the hint.

Consider home lighting. A wire service article that appeared on the front page of Saturday's Wisconsin State Journal highlighted the appalling inefficiency of incandescent lights in contrast to fluorescents and not-quite-ready-for market solid state (i.e., LED) technologies.

Replacing incandescents is one of the easiest propositions of energy efficient living: as the compact fluorescent (CFL) packages advertise, the value of CFL energy savings is large relative to the price differential with incandescent bulbs. My guess is that most houses nevertheless continue to harbor large numbers of incandescents. (*)

For instance, we make extensive use of CFLs in our conventionally switched fixtures, but have 650W of incandescent floodlights — 10 bulbs — providing main lighting in our kitchen and family room; they're on dimmers and can't use normal CFLs. Between the shady lot and long Wisconsin winters, they're on a lot of the time.

Installing dimmable CFLs would avoid 500W of that electricity consumption, saving us $300 or so over the 4-year-ish life of the bulbs, net of the additional cost of the CFL bulbs. That's like adding a Star Destroyer to my collection, for free! Your uses for the funds might vary, but if you have 10 or more incandescent bulbs in the 60-watt class in frequently-used fixtures, you could see savings at least as great.

Nevertheless, when Suzanne found one of the dimmable bulbs at our friendly local hardware store, rather than immediately yanking an incandescent — I could pull a brand-new bulb without materially affecting the payoff — I went on the lightbulb deathwatch, providing an observation towards Jeremy's theory that economists are not obviously better at solving everyday sunk cost problems than other people. (**)

In the aggregate, 500W chunks of pure waste roll up to serious quantities — tens of gigawatts. In the mid-nineties, before CFLs were in wide use, the EIA projected that a bit more than 3% of residential electricity use (about 32 gigawatt-hours in 1995, when the last EIA residential lighting survey was conducted) could be avoided if only those incandescents used more than 4 hours/day were replaced with CFLs. Present CFL and electricity prices would make it efficient to replace nearly any incandescent, presenting an even bigger savings opportunity. The upshot is that we're wasting enough electricity to power, say, every TV and every home computer in the U.S. as of 2001. Or, we could eliminate the dirtiest few percent of coal-fired power generation (and coal extraction).

That we aren't even doing a lot of the simple things is part of the reason why, much as I share Jim Kunstler's concern that most of our so-called leaders are doing everything possible to delay much needed restructuring of the economy to adapt to persistently high energy prices (Madison, at least, is trying to be a happy exception), I don't see any reason why the end state need be a new Dark Ages.

That consumers balk at the high entry price of CFLs and thereby leave $20 bills on the floor shows that there's room in the policy mix for efficiency standards such as the sometimes-maligned (even here) CAFE. In practice, it can be a lot to ask of people to evaluate more- and less-vampiric appliances using information theoretically available to the market. Even if it isn't, fairness considerations may militate against allowing, say, the rich to "rationally" decline to pick up the $20. It should also give one pause when economists propose nutball schemes that assume that everyone will react like h. economicus.


(*) The 1995 residential lighting survey showed essentially zero market penetration of CFLs at the time, when CFLs were clunkier and much more expensive than they are now.

(**) Annoyingly, when I came to my senses, the new bulb proved to be DOA.
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