The light-bulb wars switch on again

Wanna be warm? Get an electric heater, and get rid of your incandescents, say a chorus of compact fluorescent supporters.

Published March 26, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

I swear, nothing gets How the World Works readers riled like a good incandescent vs. compact fluorescent light bulb brouhaha. OK, that's not entirely true -- Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton free-for-alls have become distressingly frequent of late. But you expect that kind of behavior in politics. The light-bulb wars have been a revelation.

Last Friday, I summarized a column by Toronto Star energy reporter Tyler Hamilton that itself had summarized the conclusions of a study raising questions about whether it always makes sense to replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs. The nub of the argument was that in some cases the heat generated by the incandescent light bulbs could be useful. This excited a storm of comment, and even inspired Joseph Romm, author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics," energy expert, blogger extraordinaire, and regular Salon contributor, to pass on a copy of an e-mail he sent directly to Hamilton.

From either an energy or a CO2 perspective, incandescents are a big loser. If you really like electric resistance heat, buy the best portable forced air heater -- it's is still infinitely better than using an incandescent for heat from a CO2 perspective. It doesn't really matter what the source of your electricity is, since energy around Canada and North America is fungible (and we don't yet have an oversupply of zero carbon electricity).

But again if you really prefer heating your house with electricity because you have zero-carbon electricity, then buy an electric heat pump -- if you have one, then dump your incandescent, the heat pump is much more efficient. For a new home or gut rehab, get a geothermal heating and cooling system. Plus better insulation of course.

This is especially true if you do any significant amount of air-conditioning during the year -- which certainly most commercial office buildings do in Canada -- and I'm guessing many people run air-conditioning in your homes in Toronto during the summer (certainly that will become more common thanks to global warming).

I can assure you that if you were to do the life-cycle analysis in detail, you'd find that keeping incandescents for the heat value is an energy/climate loser.

A similar argument was made in a prominent letter to the editor published in the Star on Saturday.

(Incidentally, a very nice life-cycle analysis comparing incandescents to compact fluorescents can be found here. The answer: CFLs win.)

In the comment areas on his own blog, Hamilton acknowledged Romm's point about the "fungibility" of electricity on the continental grid, but did not let go of his assertion that there were "various situations in which an incandescent may make more sense -- both economically and from a greenhouse gas perspective."

As for me, my main point was, as usual, an attempt to illustrate that there are often factors that we overlook when balancing the pros and cons of new ways of doing things. I will concede that this particular case may not have been the best launching point for that somewhat simple-minded hobby horse. But it did inspire one of the best comments, ever, from reader RedHairedGrrl.

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By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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