A bright idea

It isn’t often that such a painless lifestyle change will go so far in saving money and the environment at the same time.

Everybody’s looking for ways to cut costs, and most of us want to do our part to help preserve our beautiful mountain environment for future generations. Yet Asheville-area residents, businesses and local governments alike are missing out on an easy, sure-fire way to save money, save time, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and even put a dent in global warming.

It’s as simple as changing a light bulb. At the current Progress Energy residential rate (8 cents per kilowatt-hour), a single 23-watt compact-fluorescent light will save its owner $61.60 over the bulb’s 10,000-hour life. A 13-watt CFL saves $37.60. That’s because a comparably bright incandescent bulb uses four times as much electricity. The CFL replacement for a 60-watt incandescent, for instance, consumes a meager 13 watts. A 23- to 25-watt CFL replaces a 100-watt incandescent.

And in North Carolina, coal-fired power plants like the Asheville Steam Generating Plant at Lake Julian generate 47 percent of Progress Energy’s electricity. Factor in the savings in coal and atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the results are truly eye-opening.

The Asheville plant burns 3,000 tons of coal per day to produce about 8,500 megawatt-hours of electricity. That translates into 0.71 pounds of coal per kilowatt-hour. And every pound of coal burned produces 2.7 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the nonprofit Sustainable Energy & Economy Network (www.seen.org/pages/db/method.shtml). Stated another way, every kilowatt generated by coal results in 2 pounds of greenhouse CO2.

Thus, in our area, replacing a single 100-watt incandescent bulb with a 23-watt CFL eliminates the need for 547 pounds of coal and the resulting 1,500 pounds of CO2 emissions. A 13-watt CFL offsets 334 pounds of coal and about 920 pounds of CO2. (If these numbers seem outrageous, they’re actually lower than those commonly found on the Internet for coal.)

And if you were put off by the inconvenience and cold, queasy flicker of earlier generations of energy-efficient lighting, times have changed: Today’s instant-on, twist-tube compact-fluorescent lights screw into regular sockets and are available in a range of “color temperatures,” measured in kelvins.

Local home-improvement stores now carry CFLs ranging from a coolish 3,500K to a warm 2,700K (the yellowish tint we associate with incandescent lights). And with an average life span of about 10,000 hours, a single bulb may last as long as a dozen incandescents, whose combined cost may almost offset the CFL’s higher price before it even leaves the box.

But it’s the twisty tubes’ long life span that most impresses Buncombe County Director of Physical Facilities Greg Israel. To him, CFLs mean reduced maintenance. The county has now converted to them entirely, except where dimmer circuits are involved (most twisty tubes are incompatible with dimmer switches). The Federal Building in downtown Asheville has also made the switch. The city itself, however, isn’t as far along. Outgoing Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson says Asheville is phasing out incandescent bulbs, but only 30-40 percent have been changed over so far. City residents should urge elected officials to pick up the pace.

North Carolina is also lagging. The State Energy Office does encourage the use of CFLs, and UNCA converted eight years ago. But the 20 percent energy-reduction goals set for state agencies still lack teeth, according to David Wallace of the Energy Office. A maintenance supervisor at the Black Mountain Center told me he’s still using incandescents.

Private industry is beginning to take notice. Both the Grove Park Inn and the Inn on Biltmore Estate have made substantial commitments to CFLs. The new Homewood Suites on Tunnel Road uses CFLs exclusively. A spokesman for Emory Electric, a large local contractor, told me that most of the firm’s new commercial business specifies CFLs, except on circuits with dimmer switches. New Habitat For Humanity homes also come equipped with CFLs.

Otherwise, however, the news on the residential front is not so good. So far this year, CFLs have accounted for only about 10 percent of light-bulb sales at the Home Depot in east Asheville, according to Store Manager Robin Scott. Not one of the three Asheville Home Builders Association electricians I spoke with could remember a new-home job that specified compact fluorescents. One, Jeff Ledford, said he tries to talk homebuyers into them, but the $10 price tag on a three-pack of 13-watt bulbs tends to put people off. This glaring example of false economy suggests a widespread lack of understanding at the consumer level. Most new houses come with bulbs installed, and the cost is simply folded into the mortgage — making it essentially a nonissue for the homebuyer.

Like other fluorescent lights, CFLs contain mercury. And while North Carolina allows households to dispose of them as regular trash, businesses must follow the same rules that apply to standard fluorescent tubes. The Buncombe County Landfill follows these policies, according to Assistant Supervisor Roger Chastain, though he encourages people to instead bring used CFLs to the landfill on Fridays for recycling. Perhaps the county could set up some bulb-collection points and improve the residential recycling percentage.

But if you care about our environment, there’s no better place to start making a difference. Energy efficiency was far and away the most emphatic recommendation of the expert panel at a public forum titled “Real World Solutions to Inconvenient Truths,” held recently at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville. “The cleanest kilowatt-hour is the one that isn’t used,” proclaimed Jonah Butcher, the development director for UNCA’s alternative-energy crafts campus.

True, some efficiency modifications can be costly or complicated; but others are what Drew Jones of the Sustainability Institute called “low-hanging fruit”: readily available and usable by everyone. Compact fluorescents are a prime example of the latter category.

Some supermarkets now carry CFLs, though the selection tends to be better at home centers, and prices may be lower. The Clean Air Community Trust, a nonprofit chartered by the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, sells twisty tubes at wholesale prices in quantities large or small (see below). Both the Community Trust and Home Depot sell bulbs that put out a warm 2,700K light; those available at Lowe’s are cooler 3,000-3,500K models.

If you haven’t yet switched to CFLs, clip this story and post it on the refrigerator as a reminder. It isn’t often that such a painless lifestyle change will go so far in saving money and the environment at the same time. Social responsibility doesn’t get any easier than changing a light bulb.

[Freelance writer Michael Hopping lives in Riceville; in a former life, he was a community mental-health physician.]

The nonprofit Clean Air Community Trust sells CFLs at wholesale prices; call 258-1856, or visit www.airtrust.org.


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.