The value of thinking small

Christmas is over and I’ve learned three things. One, increased food consumption lowers the center of gravity, secondly, stress created in men by panic gift shopping could be avoided but rarely is. Thirdly and most important, the new LED (light emitting diode) Christmas lights are marvelous and should be a part of a low energy lifestyle for everyone. Gone will be the spousal conflict in some households over the number of hours that Christmas lights are turned on. They are incredibly energy efficient and can be used indoors or outdoors.

Looking back many years, we traditionally used C-7 incandescent bulbs indoors and C9 bulbs outdoors. With 7 watts per bulb and 25 bulbs per string, these used a total of 175 watts per hour. More recently, mini lights were developed to reduce energy usage and they are much better. A string of 100 mini light bulbs uses .4 watts per bulb for an hourly usage of 40 watts. Now, we have the amazing LED lights that use .04 watts per bulb and a 100-bulb string will only use 4 watts per hour.

The approaching energy crisis can be solved by changing our lifestyle and by improved technology. LED Christmas lights are an example of improved technology that is uses 98% less energy than the original incandescent and 90% less energy than the reduced wattage mini lights.

If we assume that the average New Brunswicker has 200 Christmas lightbulbs turned on for 150 hours each December, then we can estimate the cost of each type of light. The old C7 incandescent would use 210 kWh a year or roughly $21 in annual expense. The minilights would use 12 kWh a year or $1.20 per year. What is absolutely incredible is that the 200 LED bulbs would use only 1.2 kWh’s in December and cost 12 cents a year to run. It becomes very clear that the C7’s or the outdoor C9’s that are still in use should be replaced by LED’s as soon as possible as the payback is just over one year. The payback going from minilights to LED is roughly 10 years assuming that the cost of a 100 bulb string is less than $12. Based on the increasing volume of LED sales, the price should decline in coming years.

Recently, there have been many light exchange programs sponsored by utilities and government: for example, in Nova Scotia, Ontario, BC, California, and other locales. Let’s take a look at why other areas have seen the light. With 250,000 households in New Brunswick having an average of 200 bulbs, then the provincial total is 50 million bulbs. I don’t think anyone could accurately estimate how many of each type there is but supposing that 40% are C7, 40% are minilights and 20% are LED. This means that C7 incandescent lights make up approximately 140 Megawatts of the December peak load. Incandescent Minilights would be 8 MW’s and LED’s would be .4 Megawatts. If there were a total conversion of lights to LED’s then the 148.4 peak MW’s would shrink to 2 Megawatts. Even if my assumptions are off a little, we can still see why Ontario and California, being stretched for generation capacity, have been so motivated to speed up the process of conversion to higher efficiency in appliances, CFL’s and Christmas lights.

What would be the reduction in greenhouse gases from a conversion program? The present load of 148,400 kW x 150 hours is 22.3 million kWh’s. After a conversion program, this would be 300,000 kWh’s for a reduction of 22 million kWh or 35,480 barrels of heavy oil ($2.6M at $75 / barrel). Reduction of generation at peak generally affect the most expensive sources and likely oil, which at recent prices, costs over 8 cents per kWh just for the fuel. This is close to 18,000 tons of CO2 reduction, which is almost .1% of the annual emissions in New Brunswick. This doesn’t get us to Kyoto targets but maybe a combination of many small programs and lifestyle change will get us to the right place. On the other hand, Steven Harper complaining about the previous government won’t get us anywhere. Does he have some new programs coming out soon to save his environmental soul?

Two assumptions that may affect above calculations should be noted. Reduction may not totally coincide with system peak. Two, some of the benefits of reduction in heat from the LED lights would be replaced by increased electric heat. However, many of the lights are placed outdoors where the heat is totally wasted. Many others are in homes heated by wood heat.

So how will the new Liberal government treat Christmas lights? Is there a place in the new energy plan locally for this remarkable technology that delivers savings for the utility, the customer and the environment?

On Energy, we are what we think

We’ve all heard that old saying “you are what you eat.” The remarkable transition in our economy over the last century has dramatically changed our food choices. Without initially understanding the impacts, sugar, fat and processed food has caused major health concerns to many groups. Statistically, diet change of native people has led to high rates of diabetes and a high fat diet leads to heart disease in the general population. Everywhere we see experts talking about what we need to do to change our lifestyle. Over time we absorb some of this knowledge and eventually we begin to believe that “good food leads to good health” and we have to change. It is very tough to do on our own.

But we have trouble connecting all the dots and changing our behaviour on a consistent basis. There is some good news from New York City where “trans fats” will be banned from restaurants by June 2007. They aren’t good for us but to avoid them we have to examine every food label where we buy groceries and actually understand what it says. What New York City has done is structurally change the playing field so that it is easier for people to eat better at restaurants where the ingredients are not readily available for us to see. The ripples from this leadership are spreading everywhere.

So what does energy or environment have to do with food? The process of change is the same in both cases and just as difficult. If we want a better environment and less energy used, we have to go back to the very beginning of the process – our education and thought processes. We might paraphrase the expression to be: “we are what we think.” Our thoughts are formed by the information received from friends, the media and schools. For example, a simple film by Al Gore called “An inconvenient truth” has had a dramatic impact on the amount of interest in global warming. I rented the film recently and found it to be both entertaining and very informative. I would recommend it to anyone who is curious about the future of our planet and would like to know what each of us can do to improve our environment.

When I talk to people about energy problems or resource depletion that is coming in the near future, I get several reactions. The first is denial. Denial is a natural defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a concept or idea that is difficult or “inconvenient” to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite evidence to the contrary.

Other people take refuge in a technological solution that will solve our problems related to energy, and that the ingenuity of man will triumph over adversity. These people believe that Exxon Mobil will come up with a way to squeeze more oil out of existing oil wells or discover the next big supergiant oilfield. Or an inventor will revolutionize the solar cell or hydrogen will power cars. They don’t have a clue how or when it will happen. Certainly, I hope so but am I willing to bet my future and those of my children on mere threads of possibility.

So our first challenge is changing our thinking about energy and the environment. Often we are told: it is either jobs or the environment. It is clear to the Danish people that being green by building windmills is good for their economy. Over 11,000 people are employed by Vestas, the largest wind turbine company in the world. The Europeans have developed a carbon-emissions trading system that allows them to control and gradually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in a fair way. What is New Brunswick’s plan? What is stopping us from beginning an emission trading system in New Brunswick?

Steven Harper’s recent cabinet shuffle brought in a new Environment Minister to replace Rona Ambrose. He had no choice. Canadians are miles ahead of his environmental delay tactics and the Prime Minister realized that he had to change course or sink into the abyss charted by Joe Clark and others. Will his actions be enough to save his government? The new environment minister has a window of opportunity of perhaps three weeks to provide concrete evidence of a serious plan.

Locally, New Brunswick’s new government has a clean slate to work with. Everything is possible. Energy has been touted as a pivotal issue. Will the government take the NYC activist route and ban the energy “trans fats” that will eventually kill us prematurely. Will Shawn Graham and Jack Keir note the desire of Canadians for concrete action? We can individually do our part to decrease our energy footprint, but we need our government on board. Leadership can be contagious!

Alternatively, those who fail to plan for the future will have their future arranged for them but they may not like it.

CFL’s could save New Brunswick millions

How many politicians does it take to change an incandescent to a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL)? Two, one to change it and one to change it back.

Compact fluorescent bulbs (the other CFL) are in the minds of Saint John residents these days but they should be important for the whole province. The fluorescent tube was brought into production in the late 1930’s and the compact florescent is just a twisted version to imitate the physical size of an incandescent. The CFL started growing in popularity after its introduction in 1995.

The efficiency of the incandescent bulb developed by Thomas Edison is roughly 17 lumens per watt of power. The CFL can produce as much as 60 lumens per watt. This makes the CFL four times more efficient.

NewsFlash! Average person saves $60 per year in energy! A lot of people have some CFL bulbs in their house, but very few have converted completely either due to the higher initial cost or because their fixtures don’t permit the use of CFL’s. Let’s make a few assumptions about what exists today: There are 250,000 households in New Brunswick and each of them has an average of 25 bulbs of which 5 are compact fluorescent. Perhaps 40% are lit at any given time in the evening. If the average switched on time is 5 hours per day, this would make 8 incandescent 60-watt bulbs and 2 CFL with a rating of 15 watts turned on. The power usage would be 2.55 kWh/day or 76 kWh/month, which is roughly $7. If the house was converted to complete CFL’s, then the power usage is .75 kWh /day or 22.5/month, which is roughly $2 month. The person heating with wood, oil or natural gas would save $5 / month or $60 year on their electric bill.A very smart friend of mine suggested that the effects of this reduction would be less during the winter months for electrically heated homes. This is true for annual usage but with 360 watts subtracted from the total load means that baseboard heaters would run slightly longer. Homes with electric heat would see savings of $30 per year.

News Flash! Utility could save hundreds of million dollars! What is the overall effect on the requirement for power plants here in New Brunswick? If the average household lighting wattage drops from 510 watts to 150 watts at any given time, then the provincial reduction is 90 MW. This reduction is 22% of the capacity of the Belledune coal plant, which cost $1 Billion dollars to build. Put another way, with annual load growth of NB Power at 1% or 32 MW’s, the deferral of a power plant construction would be 3 years, which has a value of several hundred million dollars if required today.

News Flash! Using CFL’s is one small step towards achieving Kyoto targets! 

Many people are concerned about global warming and wonder what difference using CFL’s only would make. If the difference in consumption (167 Million kWh’s) is reduced by 30%, (60% of homes use electric heat x 50% of the year), then the net savings is 117 million kWh’s. Although roughly 60% of NB Power generation creates greenhouse gases (GHG), a reduction of load will most likely touch units that are creators of GHG. Therefore, 117 million kWh’s times a conversion factor of 1.9 pound CO2/ kWh would give a 101,045 Metric tons reduction. To put this into perspective, New Brunswick creates 20 million Metric tons of CO2 emissions each year and this reduction would be ½ of one percent. If I have been too conservative in my estimates and if we include commercial use of CFL’s, then we might hit 1% of our goal quite simply. To meet the New Brunswick targets of Kyoto requires a 25% reduction from today’s levels.

Logic would suggest that people would use compact fluorescent everywhere because it is cheaper in the long run. However, more education is required, habits die hard, higher first costs and the continued sale of fixtures that do not allow the installation of CFL’s are the reasons we don’t have a higher percentage.

Year 2020 – News Flash! “Canada’s environment minister announces a program for the conversion of incandescent bulbs to CFL’s. Speaking from the Alberta desert, the minister indicated that “global warming is on my list of priorities for the next ten years”.

A recent cabinet shuffle indicates that Steven Harper has come to his political senses and may allow the next environment minister some latitude to act on what the people of Canada want to see.  Luckily, here in New Brunswick we do have the ability to act and reduce – the risk of global warming, air pollution and the use of oil and other non-renewables. The potential benefit to us all is so great that leadership on this issue from Efficiency NB and the Energy Department would be the best Christmas gift that Elizabeth and Jack could give us for 2007.