Monday, October 14, 2013

Green Alternatives: Are They Really So Green?

The spiral-shaped tube of this compact fluorescent lamp results in a bulb much more compact
than the fluorescent tubes seen in stores - hence the name.
I recently wrote the following essay for school. Because of my school, I haven't had time to post very many things on my blog, but since I wrote this anyway I figured I might as well post it. It's an informative essay formatted MLA style explaining why sometimes green alternatives are not always what they're thought to be.
Green Alternatives: Are They Really So Green?
There are many different dreams out in the world. Some of them are related in ways you might not think of at first. Two such dreams are the dream of money and the dream of a healthy planet. People who dream of having lots of money usually want the delights and comforts that would come with being rich, such as being able to retire early, buying new and exciting things, or relaxing in a hot tub while sipping hot chocolate. Those who dream of a healthy planet, on the other hand, dislike what comes from destroying the environment, such as dirty air caused by emissions from factories, power plants, and cars. Those two dreams are related in that they are both hampered by our dependence on fossil fuels and electricity. People spend thousands of dollars every year on electricity and gasoline, while those same things contribute to pollution. If one were to use less electricity and less fuel, he would save money and reduce pollution at the same time.
Most people rely heavily on electricity and would find it very difficult to survive if they shut too many of their appliances off. Habits built up over many years make it especially hard for people to stop using the various electric devices in their homes. It is also difficult to reduce the consumption of gasoline, since most cars use gasoline and most people use their cars to get places. To solve these difficulties, people have developed what are known as “green alternatives,” which are basically new versions of products and equipment, using less power and putting out less pollution than the old versions.
One such product is the compact fluorescent lamp, which can be used as an alternative to the older and more common incandescent light bulb. Incandescent light bulbs work by passing electricity through a tungsten filament, which heats up to thousands of degrees and starts glowing. Most of the energy in an incandescent bulb is given off as heat, so that only about 10% of the energy is converted into visible light (Harris 1). In winter, incandescents can help heat houses, but the rest of the time they are not very efficient. Compact fluorescent lamps, on the other hand, work by passing electricity through a mixture of argon gas and mercury vapor, which is contained inside a glass tube. The electricity excites the gas, causing it to emit invisible ultraviolet radiation. This radiation is absorbed by a coating on the inside of the glass tube, which then produces visible light (Harris 1). Since most of the energy used by a compact fluorescent lamp is converted into visible light, it is much more energy-efficient than the incandescent bulb.
Another item that is meant to reduce pollution or save money is solar panels. Most power plants are coal-fired, which means that they use coal to boil water, which turns into steam and spins turbines to generate electricity. Emissions from the burning coal pollute the air. Solar panels, however, use only sunlight to produce electricity and do not put out pollution.
These are perhaps the most commonly publicized green alternatives. There are many others, but in this essay I will focus on the two I have already mentioned. But are compact fluorescent lamps and solar panels really as clean and green as they seem, and do they save as much money as many people believe? The answer is, in fact, no. Other green alternatives may be very effective and live up to their expectations, but these do not.
CFLs are advertised to last about 8 times as long as incandescent bulbs, but this is rarely the case. Each time a CFL bulb is turned on or off, its lifespan is reduced, so that in places where the lights are turned on and off often, such as bathrooms or closets, CFL bulbs can last about as long as incandescent bulbs (Burnett and Berg). However, you could still save money, since a CFL bulb with the same light output as an incandescent bulb uses 20 – 50% the electricity (Rieck 1). General Electric, for example, says that their 60-watt incandescent bulbs use about $7.23 of electricity each per year, and their CFLs with a similar light output use about $1.57 each per year. This would save $5.66 in electricity. Since incandescent bulbs cost about $0.50 each, and CFLs cost about $1.50 (or a dollar more), the total savings would be $4.66 per bulb – much less than the savings of about $35 per bulb as advertised on the General Electric packaging.
Those savings might make CFLs worth buying if it weren’t that they are dangerous both to humans and to the environment. Since CFLs contain mercury, some states have made it illegal to dispose of them with normal trash, and CFL bulbs must be brought to hazardous waste disposal sites instead (Burnett and Berg). Otherwise the mercury gets into the environment. If a bulb breaks, animals and humans in the vicinity face a risk of mercury poisoning.
There’s also a danger of skin cancer and sunburning from CFLs. When the gas inside is excited and emits ultraviolet radiation, the radiation is supposed to hit a phosphor coating on the inside of the CFL, causing it to give off visible light. However, according to the results of one study, many CFLs leak some of the ultraviolet radiation, probably through small cracks in the coating. When I tested this by holding an ultraviolet-sensitive lens close to a glowing CFL bulb, the lens darkened, showing that the bulb was emitting the radiation. According to the study results, radiation is strong enough to sunburn sensitive skin (Nicole). Incandescent bulbs emit very little ultraviolet radiation, if any.
Then there’s the problem of manufacturing. Since most CFLs today use special electronics that convert the incoming electricity to a new form of power, they take more energy to produce than incandescent light bulbs. The image to the right, taken from, shows how the energy required to produce a CFL bulb compares with the energy required to produce an incandescent bulb. It also shows the production energy of 8 incandescent bulbs, which is what a CFL is supposed to last as long as, but often doesn’t. This slightly reduces the amount of energy saved by using CFLs.
The other green alternative I mentioned is solar panels. Solar panels can certainly save money, and they definitely produce a lot of electricity, but there are still problems with them.  One problem is that the power output is unreliable. Solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is out, so at night and when it’s cloudy they do not produce electricity. This can be solved with a battery, but a battery system large enough to store energy for a period without sunlight can be very expensive, costing a few thousand dollars. For a residence with about 5 hours of sunlight per day that uses about 600kWh of electricity per month, a completely independent solar panel system from Wholesale Solar would cost $13,338 dollars, and a 48V 800Ah battery bank would cost $5,923, for a total of $19,261. If electricity costs 13 cents per kWh, the same residence would pay $18,720 for electricity in 20 years, which means that a solar panel system for such a house would have to run for more than 20 years before it pays for itself. This would be assuming that the solar panels do not require maintenance, that the solar panels last 20 years, that the battery does not fail, and that the owner continues to use the system during that time.
There are disadvantages to solar panels besides the cost. In a fire, electricity is usually cut off to the building so that firefighters can safely cut through walls or roofs without being electrocuted by live wires (Dunn). However, solar panels continue to produce power as long as they have light, and they cannot easily be turned off. This can cause problems. For example, in early September 2013, a warehouse with solar panels caught on fire and burned for 29 hours because firefighters did not want to cut through the roof (Riggs).
Because of their issues, compact fluorescent lamps and solar panels are not as valuable as advertised, and there are many dangers to using them. If the problems were fixed, they could save a lot of money and reduce a lot more pollution, but as it is, they are not as good as they seem at first. This does not apply to all green alternatives, of course, so it may be worth considering green alternatives besides CFLs or solar panels – there may be some that are cheaper or greener.
Works Cited
Burnett, H. Sterling and Berg, Amanda. “Lights Out for Thomas Edison.” National Center for Policy Analysis, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 12 Oct. 2013. <>.
Dunn, Vincent. “Fire Ground Electrocution.” The Firefighters Page. N.p. 30 March 2012. Web. 13 October 2013. <>.
Harris, William. “How CFL Bulbs Work.” HowStuffWorks, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.
Kenney, Ben. “Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs – A Tale From Dust to Dust.” Graph. theWatt. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013. <>.
Nicole, Wendee. “Ultraviolet Leaks from CFLs.” Environmental Health Perspectives 120.10 (2012): a387. ProQuest. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Rieck, Rob. “Frequently Asked Questions about Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs.” State of Washington Dec. 2007. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.
Riggs, Mike. “Why Firefighters Fear Solar Power.” The Atlantic Cities. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <>.
Mozes, Alan. "Could Compact Fluorescent Bulbs Pose Skin Cancer Risk?" U.S.News & World Report 08 2012: 1. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <>.
"Shedding Light on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs." Natural Life. May 2007: 8-11. Print.

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