All posts by Gary Glynn

Gary Glynn is the author of "Montana's Home Front During World War II," "Historic Photos of Montana," "Remembering Montana," and the upcoming "Brink of War." He writes from Missoula, Montana.

Light bulbs can save money and the planet at the same time.

One of the easiest ways to reduce your electric bill is to replace old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. It may also be the most cost-effective and practical way for the average American to contribute to the fight against global warming. And soon you’ll have no choice. Under terms of the recently signed Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, standard incandescent bulbs will be phased out within the next five years.

Incandescent bulbs, which have changed little from the days of Thomas Edison, have a fragile filament that when heated to the point of glowing emits a bright yellow light. The disadvantage is that most of the electricity used by this kind of bulb is wasted as heat, enough heat in fact that incandescent bulbs can significantly raise room temperature, leading to even more electricity use in the form of air conditioning.

Compact fluorescents are capable of producing the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb, while using only one quarter of the electricity. Unlike the fluorescent tubes common in office buildings, compact fluorescents use different phosphors, and typically give off a natural, warm light that is comparable to incandescent bulbs. A standard 100-watt incandescent bulb produces about 1600 lumens of light, while a compact fluorescent giving off the same amount of light uses only 23 watts of electricity.

Some manufacturers claim that compact fluorescents have a lifespan six to ten times as long as a comparable incandescent light, although in my experience the first generation bulbs did not last nearly as long as manufacturers claimed. While the initial cost of purchasing compact fluorescents is generally higher than buying a comparable incandescent, the energy savings combined with the longer life adds up to a significant savings over time. The cost of CFLs has been steadily dropping as well, and I’ve recently found CFL bulbs in Missoula priced at less than a dollar apiece.

While I’m not a huge fan of Walmart, I do applaud their corporate commitment to promoting compact fluorescents. According to Walmart, if every one of their 100 million customers bought just one CFL bulb, it would eliminate the need to burn 11 million tons of coal. Walmart.com has a calculator that estimates shoppers who purchase one CFL bulb will save $35 on their electric bill over the life of the bulb.

Approximately 25% of the average homeowner’s energy bill represents the cost of lighting. At my house I figure we spend about $100 per month just to keep the lights on. (Disclaimer: my two teenaged children figured out how to turn a light switch on when they were toddlers, but still haven’t realized that lights can be turned off as well.)

I’ve been buying compact fluorescents since the now defunct Montana Power Company began its “Switch ‘N Save” program in the 1990s, and routinely install compact fluorescents every time an incandescent light burns out. Although I’ve replaced the most commonly used lights in my house with CFLs, I still have quite a number of incandescent bulbs that need replacing.

Frequently turning CFL bulbs on and off reduces their life span, so for maximum efficiency and lifespan they should be used in fixtures that are on for several hours at a time. Most compact fluorescents come in a double spiral shape that provides the best light distribution, but they are available in numerous other shapes as well, including decorative globes and candelabras. There are also special bulbs for use with dimmer switches and 3-way fixtures. Locally, the best selection of styles, sizes and shapes that I have found are at Ace Hardware, Western Montana Lighting, Lowes, and Walmart.

Although compact fluorescents make sense from both a financial and environmental standpoint, there is a downside. Fluorescent lights contain mercury vapor, and are classified by the EPA as Universal Waste. Any fluorescent bulb should be recycled rather than thrown in the trash. Palmer Electric in Missoula (406-543-3086) will recycle fluorescent bulbs for a small fee. Although a single bulb contains only a very small amount of mercury, if you break one inside your home you should follow government cleanup guidelines (see www.lamprecycle.org). In addition, many people who suffer from migraines and epilepsy believe that compact fluorescents, particularly the older bulbs, can cause headaches and seizures.

In spite if these drawbacks, installing compact fluorescent bulbs is good for both your pocketbook, and for the planet, and there aren’t a lot of products on the market that can make that claim.

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Blackout

Like most Montanans, when I stumble to the kitchen first thing in the morning for a cup of coffee, I take it for granted that I can flip a switch, the lights will come on and a pot of fresh coffee will be already brewed and waiting for me.

The fact that the electrons that light my way to the coffee pot may have come from a hydroelectric dam in western Montana, a coal-fired plant in Colstrip, or a wind farm in central Montana never enters my mind. Americans born in the years after World War II have grown to expect that electricity will always be just a flip of a switch away. It’s something we all take for granted, because for most of us, it’s always been there.

But what if the flip of the switch brings no light? What if the coffee pot, toaster and microwave sit dark and inanimate on the counter? On occasion, everyone in Montana endures the inevitable short-term power outages caused by lightning, car-crashes, wayward backhoes, and amorous squirrels, but in general we are blessed with a reliable power supply.

In the past decade, the longest power outage I can remember was the result of a heavy June snowstorm that snapped power lines and trees all over Missoula. Even so, the power at my house was back on in four or five hours. While an inconvenience, it was by no means a tragedy.

In 2003 a much larger and more serious outage occurred in the Northeastern US and the Canadian province of Ontario. Overgrown trees shorted out a power line and started a cascading blackout that ultimately left 50 million people in the dark for up to 48 hours. The outage shut down hundreds of generators at 265 separate power plants, including 22 nuclear reactors. Subway trains screeched to a halt, airplanes were grounded, water and sewer pumps failed, and phone systems were overwhelmed. For most people affected by this blackout, the power was off for less than 24 hours, yet it cost the US and Canadian economies an estimated $6 billion.

More recently, a December ice storm in Oklahoma left hundreds of thousands of residents of that state without power for up to week. If overgrown trees and storms can cause that kind of impact, think of the consequences if people determined to cause mischief (or worse) gained access to the control systems of our electric grid.

Electric utilities control their power-lines and generators using a type of software known as SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition). This same type of software is used to control the operations of oil & gas refineries, pipelines, water and sewage treatment plants, manufacturing plants, and communication networks worldwide. SCADA systems control security alarms, air conditioning, heating, energy consumption, and all sorts of other processes in public and private buildings.

A hacker with an understanding of SCADA systems could potentially turn off alarms, and then wreak havoc on our electric generation and transportation network without fear of discovery. This was dramatically demonstrated last March, when scientists at the Idaho National Library exposed the serious threat posed by computer hackers (or terrorists) to the nation’s power grid. Using an obsolete diesel-electric generator as their guinea pig, scientists demonstrated that they could not only hack into the control system of America’s electric power grid via the internet, they could turn a multi-million dollar generator into a shuddering, smoking piece of junk at the click of a mouse.

In a recent interview with CNN, O. Sami Saydjari of the nonprofit Professionals for Cyber Defense said, “For about $5 million and between three to five years of preparation, an organization, whether it be transnational terrorist groups or nation states, could mount a strategic attack against the United States.” Scott Borg, an economist and security analyst with the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit has predicted that if a third of the country lost power for three months, the impact would be equivalent to 40 or 50 Katrina-size hurricanes striking the country at the same time.

The SCADA loophole exploited by the Idaho National Library has reportedly been fixed and utilities are working to limit their vulnerability to cyber attacks, but most Americans have done little to prepare for a widespread power outage, and still take it for granted that electricity will always be available at their fingerprints. The folks in Oklahoma who spent a week shivering in December temperatures may have a different perspective.

Next week we’ll look at what utilities are doing to prevent power outages.

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