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My family of four and I live in a 250 sq. ft. (23 m2) cabin.  The heat loss of the cabin is about 2000W.  To heat the cabin we use a 1500W electric heater and six 60W incandescent light bulbs.  That’s right, I said incandescent light bulbs.  I changed the bulbs back from CFLs to incandescent.  Why?

Although CFLs consume about eight times less electricity as incandescent bulbs (the difference being in the form of heat), CFLs require 5.7 times more energy to make and a similar amount more energy to dispose (see here for more details).  In addition, CFLs contain Mercury, which is a toxic element that you do not want to mess with.  So if you break an incandescent bulb, you have some glass to clean up.  If you break a CFL, you have a toxic clean-up inside your house.  Plus, is the extra heat produced by the incandescent bulb really waste?  In our case, no.  We use the ‘waste’ heat to warm our cabin.  So in fact, I want my light bulbs to generate heat.  And when the kids wack a light bulb with their magic wand, I don’t need to call the hazmat team.

What about during the summer?  During the summer, we don’t turn on the lights.  We have lots of windows in the cabin and therefore tons of natural light.  How about outside lights then?  Surely you don’t want to heat the great outdoors.  Very true!  Here is an application where I still use CFLs, or even better LEDs.

My point with all of this is that there is an appropriate use of technology.  We should not blindly nor ignorantly change our light bulbs for the sake of changing our light bulbs.  There is no silver bullet.  Sometimes 19th century technology is superior to 21st century technology.  We need to be intentional about how and where we use technology.  There are many cases where ‘green’ technology has increased electricity consummation (see the Jevons paradox).  Just think of the energy efficient LED Christmas lights that everyone leaves on all day or all year – ‘cause they use so much less electricity.

Technology will not save us or get us out of this environmental hole that we have dug for ourselves.   We need to be intentional and use the appropriate technology (or no technology) at the right time and the in the right place!

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  1. Susan Keohan

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for sharing your story.  I was definitely intrigued by the blog title, and now I can understand why.  I’ve wondered about the mercury in CFLs as well as the manufacturing process.

    Sue

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  2. Marilyn Pratt

    This piece missed my sustainability radar. Was pleased to hear you speak today in the SAP Sustainability Champion call.  So I read this (better late than never) and I love this piece and the idea of “intentional and appropriate technology or none”.

    Would love to share more of what you are doing in your part of the North Americas. Sounds like you have many other important activities you could share.

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