An Inconvenient Truth: A Call to Action

My wife and I went with our friends Craig and Kristin to see An Inconvenient Truth last night. In our case, Al Gore was preaching to the choir, since we needed no convincing that global warming is a very real and very urgent issue. Yet the movie still had a big impact on me. It is extremely well done and will spur people into action. Go see the movie, you’ll be inspired to act. Children will thank you. And while the problem is huge, it is not intractable, as Gore points out. There is no one thing that will solve the problem. Instead, lots of little things need to happen.

What can you do? Plant a tree — a single tree will absorb a ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Drive less. When you drive, keep your tires inflated and improve your gas mileage. A gallon gas saved keeps twenty pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Have an energy audit done on your home and reduce your energy consumption. Energy conservation is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to making a dent in emissions, and it will save you money.

Write to your local congressman, and urge them to support clean energy and conservation measures. If you’ve lost faith in the political process, then vote with your dollars as a consumer, which in today’s world may be the most powerful vote you can cast.

If you must own a car, go buy a hybrid. I am a happy owner of a Toyota Prius and a Lexus 400h. If you are able, install a PV system at your house. Today, I just ordered a 3kW SunPower system that will be installed on our garage roof by the fine folks at Namaste Solar in August. This system won’t zero-out our electric bill (we don’t have enough roof-space for that) but it will reduce it by about 30% and will keep over 8,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere every year.

If you are looking for a smaller-ticket item, replace your light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and keep 150 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air for each incandescent bulb you replace. Donate, so that someone else may see the movie for free. Use a carbon calculator to determine how much carbon dioxide emissions you are responsible for, and then purchase offsets that will fund clean energy projects and enable you to have a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative impact on the world. Purchasing offsets is not akin to buying indulgences to assuage one’s guilt, it puts real money towards real clean energy infrastructure projects.

Cooking the Earth in our own exhaust would quite literally be the ultimate (and final) Tragedy of the Commons. Go do something about it. Go see the film. Then go throw your time at the problem, throw your money at the problem, throw your influence at the problem, but do something about it. It is the RIght Thing to do.

(Thanks to Joi Ito for the link to sharethetruth, and to Acterra for their carbon dioxide statistics and suggestions on ways to help stop global warming)

  • My understanding is that compact fluorescents are close to a wash in most home-use scenarios, due to a high startup current draw which then goes down when the starter shuts off; since most domestic lights are turned on, left on short time periods, then switched off again (unlike, say office lights, which tend to run longer), replacing regular incandescents with compact fluorescents really doesn’t net you very much in a residential deployment. Though the bulbs’ lifetimes is generally a lot longer than regular incandescents, though again frequent on/off will wear out the started before the bulb itself dies.
    By contrast, LED-based bulbs seem to be really good. Better steady-state consumption than compact fluorescents by about 2x lumen-for-lumen, and they don’t have the hideous startup power draw. They also have great lifetimes, fading over time rather than burning out, such that arrays from companies like Lamina Ceramics last about 50,000+ hours to 50% brightness. High-end CFs are typically rated for about 10,000 hours MTBF.
    They’re not terribly easy to find right now in “white” colors, but plug-in replacement bulbs for both regular screw-in and low-voltage standard sockets are starting to appear. They haven’t yet been able to get the bulbs up to the higher-end brightness levels, so you’re limited to the equivalent of about a 60W incandescent or so (less in the smaller low-voltage packages). We’re designing the lighting in our house to ensure that’s not a problem, even if they never manage to figure out how to get brighter. It’s pretty rare that you ever need more light than a 60W incandescent bulb in a standard fixture indoors.
    Oh, and as an added bonus, the sigma on the MTBF (or MTB 50% dimness in this case) is nice and narrow, so you won’t likely have many bulbs getting super dark before they’ve run for 50,000 hours, where with CF bulbs, you likely will have some which burn out inside a year and need replacing.
    Note that most of the above is based on only partial information — it’s very hard to actually get real data on much of this stuff. But here’s a good link:
    Page 5 is the good stuff comparing fluorescent to solid state.
    Othere environmental concerns: mercury in the CF bulbs means that you need to take special care when disposing of them. I don’t have anything which tells me what all nasty stuff might be in the LED arrays which doesn’t want to end up in landfill/water supply somewhere, but I bet there’s some decent amount of tasty rare-earth goodies in there. But in any case, coal-fired power stations are by far far far the largest emitters of mercury in the environment, so concerns about mercury will be dominated by just reducing power consumption.
    Other generic concerns:
    CF bulbs produce non-insignificant noise on the power lines. Depending on what else you have hanging off your home grid, you might need/want to filter. If humming switches bother you, CF will possibly be annoying if deployed house-wide.
    CFs can take about 30 seconds to reach full brightness, which is annoying in places like bathrooms.
    CFs have ugly colored light. This is remedied somewhat by having a decent phosphor blend on the bulb, but these bulbs generally have worse power characteristics, and the 30-seconds-until-fully-on aspect means that even these specially-coated bulbs only generally really look good once they’re fully on.
    CFs flicker at 120Hz, again, this can be mediated somewhat by painting more/different phosphors on the bulb, at the cost of more power loss, and to my mind, even the “good” CFs still flicker unacceptably if they’re the only light source.
    You can’t dim a standard 2-pin CF bulb. Dimmable CFs generally depend on a fixture which is purpose built for them.

  • And on the cars topic. Why is there no such thing as a diesel (about 2x the efficiency of gasoline) hybrid (2x the efficiency of throwing away your breaking energy) station wagon (about 1/2 the mass of the typical SUV) from any manufacturer in the world?
    As a bonus of course, a diesel engine would mean that you can provide primary power to it from fully renewable energy sources, like palm oil.

  • Funny, I saw the movie recently also but I felt it did a terrible job of providing the audience with action items. Why wait until the credits are rolling to start making suggestions and why use such vague suggestions as “drive less.” People are not going to drive less as a result of the movie, but more specific advice such as “consider purchasing a car with 30+mph fuel economy” might affect someone’s next purchasing decision. Also, the movie gave me the distinct impression that its ultimate goal was launching Gore’s next political campaign. Anyway, I’ve written more of my thoughts on how the movie could have made a stronger impact here:

  • Craig, thanks for the info on the CF bulbs startup power draw, I wasn’t aware of that. I too plan to put LED lighting in my house as soon as it is bright enough (and hopefully the spectrum will be more pleasing too).
    Clearly LED is superior to CF in terms of lifetime and lower power draw, and is about 10 times less power-hungry than typical incandescent bulbs, where 90% of their energy goes to wasted heat output (which then drives up cooling costs). The only reason I didn’t mention LED as a lighting option is they aren’t yet widely available. My local hardware store stocks plenty of CF bulbs, but no LED bulbs.

  • The spectrum of the current lights is not bad — the only real problem is total lumens, but that’s improving quite rapidly:
    Of course, the other important element beyond lumens/watt in a single LED is how tightly you can package them and not have the whole thing melt.
    As for availability, that’s also definitely an issue today. The LED array manufacturers are clearly going after the commercial/industrial markets first, with custom fixtures and not just simple bulb replacements. But you can start to find bulbs online now, particularly the low-voltage replacement bulbs. And since they just basically don’t burn out, having local availability at the hardware store to get replacements as they burn out is less important. When they start getting dim, get online and place your order. Heck, get ground shipping instead of next-day, cos the bulbs will still be working next week.