The fiery crash of an oil train in North Dakota points to the risks of transporting crude oil by rail.
The incandescent light bulb has been around since the late 1800s, but the venerable technology’s dominance seems just about over. On January 1, 2014, in keeping with a law passed by Congress in 2007, the old familiar tungsten-filament 40- and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs can no longer be manufactured in the U.S., because they don’t meet federal energy-efficiency standards.
It’s the last part of a gradual phase-out that began in 2012 with 100-watt bulbs, and progressed last year with discontinuation of the 75-watt variety. But this final stage is the most significant, according to Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization. “The 40s and 60s represent more than 50 percent of the [consumer lighting] market,” he said.
Until the supplies run out, the old bulbs still will be available on store shelves, alongside the electricity-saving alternatives that gradually will replace them, according to Paul Molitor, an assistant vice-president of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, an Arlington, Va.-based industry group. Those new choices include compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, and updated higher-efficiency versions of the incandescent bulb that use halogen gas to slow down deterioration of the tungsten filament.
The impending demise of the familiar old-fashioned light bulb has generated a backlash among some who see it as taking away consumers’ free choice. (The conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, has proclaimed that “The Government’s Taking Away Your Light Bulbs on Jan. 1.”) But despite that, a recent public-opinion survey commissioned by lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania indicates that only three in ten consumers intend to hoard supplies of the old bulbs and stick with them. Instead, most people say they’ll switch to one of the newer lighting technologies. About half of Americans will switch to CFLs, while a quarter envision using the newer LEDs. (See related post: “Efficient Light Bulb Study Generates Heated Debate.”)
NEMA spokesman Molitor said that the impending disappearance of conventional low-efficiency incandescent lights isn’t really going to be a big deal to consumers, who already are moving to the new technologies. Prices of 60-watt equivalent compact fluorescent lights, for example, have dropped in price to the point where they’re comparable to the old lower-efficiency conventional incandescent bulbs, and the newer technologies provide the same amount of light—measured in units called lumens—while utilizing fewer watts of electricity. “Truthfully, most people aren’t really going to notice,” he said.
NRDC’s Horowitz agreed. “These new bulbs look and act the same,” he said. “There’s really no reason to hoard, unless you want to pay a little more on your electric bill.” (See related interactive: “Light Bulb Savings Calculator.”)
Both Molitor and Horowitz expect to see continued growth of LEDs, which emit light by transmitting electricity between two different semiconducting materials, and promise dramatic boosts in both energy efficiency and durability. (A 2012 paper by manufacturer General Electric claimed that its LED bulbs, in addition to using only a quarter of the electricity required by conventional incandescent bulbs, have a lifespan of 22 years, and can “virtually light a child’s bedroom desk lamp from birth through college graduation.”)
Though LEDs are still several times as expensive as the old incandescent bulbs, they’re dropping rapidly in price. “In 2012, they were about $40 apiece, but now you can get ones that cost $10,” Horowitz said. (See related post: “Green Fridays, Smart Lighting and More: How National Geographic Cuts Its Energy Use.“)
LEDs still only make up less than one percent of the consumer lighting market, but “in last half of 2013, sales of LEDs have really blossomed,” Molitor said.
Both experts also saw a continued market for high-efficiency incandescent light bulbs. Incandescent halogen bulbs now provide around 18 lumens per watt—not as efficient as their CFL and LED counterparts, which can achieve 55-100 lumens per watt, but much better than the old 60-watt incandescents at 13-15 lumens per watt. Horowitz predicted that halogen manufacturers eventually may be able to achieve more twice the efficiency than they can get now. “Theoretically, there’s no reason they couldn’t hit 45 lumens per watt,” he said.
What do you think about the phase-out? Vote below and comment.
Those of us who are committed to America’s lands are becoming increasingly concerned about what has been referred to as the “constituency crisis.” While millions still love enjoying our wild places, there has been a decline in interest in the past few
As more U.S. homes install solar power, who should pay for the legacy electric grid? In California and other states, utilities are challenging “net metering” policies.
Maybe the electric utilities are right, for a change. Maybe net-metering—the ability to run your kilowatt-hour meter backwards, with solar panels on your roof or a windmill in your backyard–is not the best policy for America, or for Americans. (See related, “As Solar Power Grows, Dispute Flares Over U.S. Utility Bills.”)
But the utilities’ populist appeal to fairness and equality is disingenuous. When did electric utilities ever care about justice–or the poor?
If they are right about net-metering, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
They want to stop solar photovoltaics (solar PV) now. They want to put it in the grave before it takes even more market share from their comfy business. Climate change and future generations be damned.
The utilities are under threat as never before. They see what’s happened in Germany, where utility profits are plummeting as Germans take more and more control of their own electricity generation. Utility companies will be ruined if they let that happen here. So now’s the time to kill net-metering and with it rooftop solar PV while they still can.
Maybe we should let them.
I can hear the howls of derision from the usual suspects: the solar PV industry, the solar leasing companies, and their sycophants in the advocacy community.
Yes, we should fight a rearguard action to keep the utilities and their legions of attorneys fully engaged. In the meantime, while the utilities are busy snuffing out net-metering, we can bypass them altogether and implement a far superior policy that will put a lot more solar on people’s roofs—solar that people can own themselves, independent of the banking industry offering them deals “to good to be true.”
After all, one of America’s most revolutionary energy policies was introduced in 1978 when the utilities were too busy trying to kill another competing industry to notice as the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) passed Congress.
PURPA allowed independently-owned renewable generators to be connected to the grid. Suddenly, the grid was no longer the utility industry’s sole domain. PURPA said you could connect your solar PV system to the grid, but it didn’t spell out how much you would get paid for your electricity.
PURPA laid the foundation for what came next—a policy that not only allowed you to connect to the grid, but that also set the price, a “tariff” in utility jargon, that you would be paid for the electricity you fed into the grid—feed-in tariffs, or FITs.
Feed-in tariffs are the alternative to net-metering and their time has come. FITs have been likened to PURPA on steroids and they are as American as apple pie. It was a crude feed-in tariff that launched renewable energy in California during the early 1980s. In that program, you could connect your biomass, wind, or solar plant to the grid, get paid a fixed-price for ten years, and then get paid a floating price for another twenty. And it worked—spectacularly. For two decades following that first feed-in tariff, the Golden State generated about 2 percent of its electricity from wind energy alone.
Since then, Europeans picked up the renewable energy torch, particularly in Denmark, where last year the Danes generated 43 percent of their electricity from biomass and wind energy, and in Germany.
Germans don’t use net-metering, and yet last year they produced one-fifth of their electricity from wind, solar, and biogas. No, the Germans use feed-in tariffs. They saw what we accomplished decades ago then set out to adapt and refine the concept. The result is a modern system of feed-in tariffs that has catapulted Germany to the front ranks of renewable energy development—rooftop solar PV included.
Numerous other countries around the world have followed suit, adopting feed-in tariffs of their own making. In fact, more countries use feed-in tariffs than use net-metering.
Most significantly, more renewable energy—by far–has been developed with feed-in tariffs than has been installed through net-metering. The International Energy Agency found in a recent study that only 2 percent of solar PV worldwide was installed primarily through net-metering. The numbers are just as lopsided for wind energy, biogas, and other renewables.
What sets modern feed-in tariffs apart from those developed in California during the early 1980s—and from net-metering–is that the price paid for electricity from different renewable sources differs as well.
In the old California system, a wind farm was paid the same price as a biomass plant or a solar plant, even though they were quite different from one another. The same is true today with net-metering. Each technology that runs the kilowatt-hour meter backwards is effectively paid the same price, the retail price of electricity, regardless of how much the electricity actually cost to produce.
In the modern or “advanced” system like that used in Ontario, Canada, wind energy is paid one price and rooftop solar another. Each technology is paid a price that reflects the average cost of generating electricity with that technology.
This approach decouples the price paid for renewable energy from both the wholesale and retail prices of electricity. Feed-in laws essentially bypass all the ideological theory and arcane mumbo-jumbo that obscure electricity rate-setting in the US.
For each technology and each application, prices are determined so as to provide a fair and reasonable rate of return. This enables anyone—anyone who wants to invest in building the infrastructure that will power America in the 21st century–to profit from renewable energy.
It is this simple idea—to pay a fair price for renewable energy—that has enabled German citizens to build and own nearly half of all the wind turbines, solar PV, and biogas plants in the country. Individual German citizens—not their utility companies–have invested more than $100 billion in renewable energy. They have done so because they are paid a fair price for their electricity and because they can install the size, type, and amount of renewables that is the most economic for them and the best fit for their communities.
Net-metering served a useful purpose in the dark days of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era. Net-metering then was a call to arms for hobbyists and guerrilla solar activists out to prove a point–solar works, your meter will run backwards, and the lights will stay on.
But net-metering was never intended to be a policy for the industrial development of renewable energy. It alone can’t do that. Retail electricity prices in North America are simply too low to make rooftop solar PV, for example, profitable without hefty subsidies.
Why run your kilowatt-hour meter backwards at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour when it costs you 20 cents to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate it with solar PV? Without federal or state subsidies, net-metering seldom makes any economic sense, even today with the rapidly falling cost of solar PV.
Net-metering was an appealing policy at one time, because it gave politicians the perfect cover for appearing to take action on the public’s demand for renewable energy, while doing nothing of substance to threaten entrenched electric utilities’ political and economic power.
Thus, politicians would typically set a low limit on the amount of renewables that could be installed in a region under net-metering—often just a few percent. They certainly wouldn’t set the limit at anything like what the Germans (5 percent solar PV) or Italians (7 percent solar PV) have already accomplished.
Moreover, they typically also limit the size of any individual installation, often a paltry 10 kilowatts, and sometimes—when they’re generous–up to 2 megawatts. (We certainly wouldn’t want to rock the utility’s boat, now, would we?)
Worst of all, net-metering limits renewable development to an existing “meter”. This precludes “greenfield” sites that don’t already serve a utility customer, a further restriction on who can use net-metering and how big a renewable project they can build.
With all the restrictions on net-metering, many Americans are prohibited from installing and owning their own solar, wind, or biogas power plants where they want to and of the size that works best for them. Net-metering locks out apartment-dwellers and renters from participating in the renewable energy revolution.
Net-metering is not–nor can it ever be–a comprehensive renewable energy policy. If we take climate change seriously, net-metering simply won’t get us where we want to go: massive amounts of renewables in the ground, and quickly. Net-metering will never give us “plus energy” houses or “plus energy” buildings, because we often literally have to give our surplus electricity to the utility company for free. How fair is that?
Yes, net-metering has served a purpose. And yes, we should not abandon it without a strong comprehensive renewable energy policy to replace it.
But the time has come from Americans to break free of the straight jacket imposed by net-metering. It is time to liberate Americans from the tyranny of utility-company control of our lives and from the politicians and regulators who serve these companies. It is time to free Americans of all walks of life–from rich to poor, from conservative to liberal, from rural to urban—to produce renewably generated electricity when they want, where they want, and in the amount they want—and to do so for a profit. What could be more American?
As the late German politician Hermann Scheer, one of the co-founders of Germany’s modern system of advanced renewable tariffs, frequently said, the time for half-measures–for timid responses–is past. There is no time to lose.
In Haiti, a country where 75 percent of people lack electricity, a new project combines smart meters, solar panels, and a micro-grid to power a downtown and jump-start local agriculture. Could the model work elsewhere?
With the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act looming, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was asked to do the unthinkable.
These are your public lands, so be sure to make the most of them year-round.