I work in a new office building, less than ten years old, one that was developed to the highest environmental standards. Every morning I sleepily wander past the LEED-whatever status plaque – it’s apparently a very good status or it wouldn’t be there on the lobby wall – and make my way to my office. I’m often first in, and the hallways are darkened as I make my way along. There is no need to turn on the lights, as I make my way along they magically spring to life sequentially as I approach, courtesy of energy saving motion sensors. Activating the lights with nothing more than my ambling stride is a theatrical little scene that never fails to make me feel, slightly but simultaneously, that I’m both helping the planet and that I’m Darth Vader.
Both of these feelings are probably illusions. A coworker pointed out to me one day what exactly was involved in these motion sensors, having seen one in the ceiling (we did not discuss either Darth Vader or why he was in the ceiling). Each is an electronic little box with a sensor, connected by probably a meter of wire to the light box. Each fluorescent light has one of these sensors; there are probably several hundred on our floor. Initially we stared at the things in wonder, but as that wore off we became curious as to how much these actually saved, how long it will take to pay for themselves, and whether they made any sense at all.
Based on some quick calculations, I will be reincarnated as Darth Vader before these ever do pay off. First there is the device itself. A quick scan of eBay brought up some crude ones for about $25, and our fancy new building probably used something more substantial. Regardless, that is the cost of the device, not installation, which is probably at least that much again. On the savings side, these devices only save energy for certain fractions of the day. At night, the lights can be shut off en masse, so no individual switch is needed. During the day, they save power only when no people are present for an extended period of time. They also save energy at times of the day when it is plentiful, not over the dinner hour when electricity costs skyrocket. To accumulate $50 in savings per light would take a very, very long time.
This calculation brings up another angle that gets no attention either. What about the cost, effort, and environmental footprint required to actually make these things? Steel, copper, rubber, and plastic all need to be processed, shipped handled, etc. It’s hard to calculate, but it is safely true to say that a whole manufacturing chain is required to build these in economies of scale that gets the cost into that ridiculously low band.
The building has many other worthwhile environmental initiatives of which the owners are justifiably proud, as they should be. This one however is flashy to look at but probably a massive over-complication that looks really cool but won’t do much for the environment.
Tangentially, we see governments applying massive subsidies to electric vehicles (EV’s) that will either never pay off, or are an extremely inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. A recent study concluded that the subsidies cost a fortune and have little effect on green house gas emissions. The study estimates the cost of reducing that carbon at $300-500 per tonne in Quebec and Ontario, numbers that dwarf the cap and trade carbon value adopted by Quebec and California (and soon Ontario) that is less than $20 per tonne.
Resources are not infinite. The planet won’t be saved from global warming by spending these sums of money inefficiently. They will place an unbearable burden on economies, and if economies can’t handle the load all hell will break loose. Seven billion people will not exit the mortal plane without a fight – they will kill and burn whatever is required to stay fed and warm, respectively.
Why are we not funneling resources to the places where they are most efficient? Or in other words, why not face reality?
As an example, people are voting loud and clear that they want bigger, safer, luxurious automobiles, and not electric vehicles. The numbers simply bear that out – there are currently some 2 million electric vehicles on the road after at least a decade of promotion and subsidies, and 40 percent of those go to China which has 1.3 billion people to contend with. And for further context, China purchases 24 million passenger vehicles a year. EV’s are growing in number, but so is the total number of cars.
What gets lost though is that the auto sector is doing some amazing things to get more efficient and environmentally friendly. General Motors collects water bottles to use as sound insulation in vehicles; Ford uses the bottles in seat construction. Toyota uses sugar cane to replace plastics in some components including parts of radiators. BMW’s i3 uses natural renewable fibers to make dashboards.
This is the kind of thinking we need to be encouraging, developing and subsidizing. There aren’t enough bank accounts to loot to spend on feel good high-visibility things like auto sensing lights that make zero sense from an economic or environmental perspective.
Update: Mark J. Grant is not witless
Last week, I wrote about a pet peeve – potentially harmful stories that become adopted as truth because of their ubiquitousness. I singled out a Bloomberg article written by Mark Grant as indicative, and engaged in some wild character assassination in postulating that he was “possibly witless.” This far from scientific conclusion was based on his article and snippets from his online bio, and using these alone I lumped him in with a certain breed of daily market commentator that speak without thinking. Mr. Grant contacted me and politely pointed out that he was in fact not witless, and that my characterization of his commentaries was far off the mark and based on ignorance.
He was absolutely correct, and was a true gentleman in the way he pointed it out. His extensive writings are thoughtful and intelligent, and though I remain in disagreement with his position on the shale revolution, his writing is not that of an ignorant media gadfly. As you likely know, and I do myself but forget from time to time, insulting generalizations based on ignorance say far more about the sender than the intended target. My apologies Mr. Grant, and thanks for the wake up call and reminder to do more homework.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here