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The peak oil crisis: conserving light

This week the UN is to come up with a sanctions resolution that will keep Iran's two million barrels a day of exports flowing and at the same time convince Tehran to give up on uninspected nuclear enrichment.

Crafting such a resolution is likely to take some doing as the Chinese, who are more concerned about losing oil imports than whether or not Tehran comes up with an atomic bomb, have to sign off on any sanctions plan.

Therefore, there is still time to explore some of the things we are going to have to do to keep functioning in the post-peak oil world. This week I would like to talk about our electric lights. Discussion of this topic is occasioned by the recent release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of a 500-page report exhaustively exploring the world's electric lighting and the energy it takes to keep it glowing.

The IEA contends that in the 100 years or so we have had electricity, we have let massive waste creep into the lighting of our buildings, streets and open spaces. The fundamental cause of this waste was the abundance of cheap electricity, cheap fixtures and cheap bulbs. The cost of over-lighting an individual room, structure or area was small. It is only when we realize there are billions of us on the earth consuming many times more electric light than we actually need, that it becomes apparent that collectively our lighting systems are wasting very large quantities of fossil and other electricity-generating fuels we will soon need desperately.

As is the case with liquid fuels, here in America we are at the top of the lumen per capita consumption list: the average American uses 101 megalumen-hours per year, while the average Englishman gets by with 60. Worldwide, the average person connected to an electric grid uses 20 megalumen-hours but the average Indian gets by with only three per year.

Energy waste through improper lighting can take many forms. It can be as simple as leaving lights burning in an empty room, or equipping a room with oversized or too many lights, or continuing to use obsolete and inefficient lighting technology. Where a standard incandescent bulb will provide only 6-18 lumens per watt, a compact fluorescent will provide 35 to 80, and modern fluorescent tubes can approach 100 lumens per watt. On the horizon are white light-emitting diodes that may be capable of 150 - 200 lumens per watt and have lifetimes of 50-100,000 hours.

An important factor in efficient lighting is the switching. In too many rooms a single switch controls a large bank of lights. Providing more switches, timers, and light and motion sensors would save considerable energy each year by ensuring that light is used only when and where it is needed. I recently visited Italy and was surprised to find that in recently renovated hotels, the room door key-card also doubles as an electricity activation card. Leave your hotel room and you have no choice but to kill every light, TV, and appliance in the room until you return.

One day, our civilization will be remembered for its outdoor lighting. A flight across America on a clear night is a thing of beauty for there is light, and light pollution, everywhere— streets, highways, sidewalks, parking lots, malls, signs, freeways, thruways, toll roads and even 400 million car and truck headlights all twinkling in the darkness. We sure know how to light up the night.

From the peak oil perspective, however, all this excess luminescence is a major asset. By turning off unnecessary lights and dimming down the rest to only what is really needed, we can have a quickly available and inexpensive source of electrical energy that can partially substitute for reductions in the availability liquid fuels.

Lighting currently consumes about 19 percent of total global electrical production. There is no reason why major reductions in the consumption of lighting couldn’t take place immediately in the case of an energy emergency. Considerably larger reductions in the energy used for lighting could take place over the next 10-20 years as more efficient systems and appliances come into common use. Over the long run, we should be able to have adequate lighting using only a few percent of the electricity we currently use.

There are still some 1.6 billion people on earth who do not have access to lights from an electric grid. Most of these use highly inefficient kerosene or small diesel electric generators for their lighting. As subsidies are removed from kerosene, many are going to be priced out of lighting altogether. However, the IEA believes the recent development of book-sized photovoltaic panels coupled to highly efficient LED nights may soon offer a cost-competitive substitute for the kerosene lamp.

In most cases, replacing older lighting systems makes economic sense, as payback periods can be very brief. There are a number of structural obstacles, however, to the widespread deployment of efficient lighting systems that may require increased government regulation— especially when energy becomes tight.

In the case of commercial real estate, the organization paying the lighting bill usually is not the one that owns the building and pays the capital cost of the lighting. While it may be easy for a homeowner to screw in a compact fluorescent bulb, more extensive changes involving ballasts or fluorescent fixtures may require expensive professional help. More incentives and better standards may be necessary.

Lighting, of course, is not the only way to cut back electricity consumption. Continuously operating home computers, ventilation systems, clothes dryers, and central air conditioners are prodigious users of power. When peak oil forces the world to power down, much more efficient use of our existing electricity supply is likely to be the only readily available source of additional energy for a while.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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