Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic
Another Example Of Why Government-Directed Energy-Savings “Investments” Are Illogical
There’s been a lot of talk the past few years about how the federal government is going to “invest” in clean energy-savings technology.
By applying a little Engineering Thinking — a review of history, coupled with an understanding of how inefficient the government is as a system (see “It’s Just A Systems Thing“) — one can conclude: Bad Idea. Here’s a recent example from The Economist (“Why new lightbulbs save little”), as reported in the 19 Sept. St. Petersburg Times:
“Solid-state lighting … promises illumination for a fraction of the energy used by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. … But precedent suggests that this will serve merely to increase the demand for light … That, at least, is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics by Jes Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories … They predict that the introduction of solid-state lighting could increase the consumption of light by a factor of 10 within two decades.”
Similar government-promoted or mandated programs over the past years have included:
- low-flush toilets (which waste, rather than save, water because folks flush twice, which exceeds the water consumption of the older single-flush toilets)
- recycled trash (the gas consumption and pollution created by trucks used to pick up “recycled” materials exceeds the benefits of the recycling, plus the recycled materials often are not even recycled, they’re just trucked to the same waste dump as normal trash) (please see UPDATE 6-5-2012 below)
- elimination of incandescent lamps (which as noted above may actually increase lighting energy consumption over the long run). Also, the use of fluorescent replacements will create environmental hazards because of their mercury content. For some additional commentary on this, check here.
- usage of electric vehicles (which may result in a net increase in pollution and energy consumption when everything is considered, such as utility emissions and efficiency, battery recharging efficiency, and many other factors.)
Engineers are trained to look at the big picture to avoid unintended consequences. Nonetheless, even though our devotion to engineering thinking increases the odds of making correct decisions, we still make our fair share of mistakes. Therefore it is laughable and simultaneously disheartening to watch Congress, whose members with very few exceptions have never had any significant scientific training or business experience, pass grandiose legislation that purports to fix highly complex problems.
I recently (May 2012) received some thoughtful and constructive comments on this post from Mr. Ron Henricks, Environmental Administrator, Waste Reduction Section, Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Henricks pointed out that my statement “…the recycled materials often are not even recycled, they’re just trucked to the same waste dump as normal trash” was, in his experience, not typical. I agree that my initial comment was based on isolated instances (such as reported here: “Caught On Tape: Recyclables Dumped In With Garbage” by Mike McKnight, WOWT Channel 6, and here: “Where does your recycled glass really go?” by Dan Tilkin, KATU On Your Side Investigator, 16 Feb 2012, KVAL.com), and that I improperly extrapolated too broad of a generalization. Mr. Henricks says, “I’ve received several calls over the years from citizens across the state thinking they discovered recyclables being dumped. Most of those calls turned out to be misunderstandings about what exactly it was they saw.”
Mr. Henricks also points out that my comment, “…the gas consumption and pollution created by trucks used to pick up ‘recycled’ materials exceeds the benefits of the recycling…” is not accurate. I agree that my statement was not clear, for which I apologize. I should have framed my comments within the context of comparative benefits to the taxpayer; i.e., “…recycling may not be an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, when compared to alternative uses for those dollars.”
I thank Mr. Henricks for taking the time to read this blog and to provide his thoughtful and constructive criticism.
For more on this topic, please see “Is Recycling Worthwhile: An Investigative Report.”