Incandescent interference

Ontario is planning to ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs by 2012, the provincial energy and environment ministers announced today, part of a plan to shave six million megawatt-hours off Ontario’s energy consumption and close the last of its coal-fired generating plants.

From the National Post‘s account:

Ontario has a short-term goal of achieving a 5% or 1,350 megawatt reduction in peak demand this year compared with 2005. The long-term goal is to reduce projected electricity demand by 6,300 megawatts by 2025, a goal that translates into a 14% per capita reduction in provincial electricity consumption.

The goal is considered extremely aggressive by all involved. California has only managed to keep per capita electricity consumption flat since the mid-1970s despite the introduction of tough building code changes, new appliance standards and other conservation measures that came into effect after the OPEC oil embargo.

If Ontario’s conservation goals aren’t attained, governments down the road will have to consider a host of politically unpalatable options that include keeping the province’s coal fired plants open for longer — they are currently slated for closure by 2014 — or building more than the one or two new nuclear plants already envisioned.

While this is a solid-fuel-rocket boost for manufacturers of compact fluorescents and LED lights, and essentially good news for the environment, it’s really a consequence of the profoundly screwed-up way the electricity system works in Ontario (and so many other places). Not only is the transmission grid publicly owned, which is defensible, but the backbone of the province’s generation system is a small number of extremely large generators (nuclear, coal, or old-school hydroelectric) that are also either publicly owned or so tightly affixed to the provincial treasury that they might as well be.

Trouble is, the price is regulated by the government, smoothed out with adjustments each season, kept from spiking with the cost of electricity on the spot market in summer, and not really linked to the cost of the multibillion-dollar installations from which it emerges. There’s little direct incentive to make personal choices in favour of efficiency, because the government virtually guarantees that inefficiency won’t cost you that much.

Rather than deal with that much more fundamental problem, Ontarians get a ban on one particularly inefficient technology, five years from now.

In compact fluorescents’ defence, they’ve improved a lot over the past few years. We’ve put on in the overhead kitchen light a few years ago and it’s kind of unpleasantly blue and dim, but I picked up a couple more about a month ago, for the overheads in the living room, bedroom and front hall, and if anything they’re too yellow and bright. Very serviceable substitutes for incandescents, as more than my little anecdotal case has found. I just wish everyone could make a reasoned choice to use them, instead of being forced.

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2 responses to “Incandescent interference

  1. David, you said:

    “Trouble is, the price is regulated by the government, smoothed out with adjustments each season, kept from spiking with the cost of electricity on the spot market in summer, and not really linked to the cost of the multibillion-dollar installations from which it emerges. There’s little direct incentive to make personal choices in favour of efficiency, because the government virtually guarantees that inefficiency won’t cost you that much.”

    You are partially right on that point. If we deregulated electricity prices, the cost will most certainly spike and force many people to make more efficient choices.

    But not all.

    If you are making 100K and more, jacking prices up will be at most an annoyance but you’ll still consume the same amount of energy because you can afford it. People with higher incomes are the ones with the large homes that consume all kinds of electricity, as well as driving those oversised SUVs and small trucks.

    I once worked with a colleague who was making 60K while her husband made 140K and owned a 4X4. They were talking about getting another large vehicle and I asked her if they were concerned about the spike in gas prices; she said no because they could afford it. That made me so mad because I was making between 50 to 55K and had to start carpooling to save money. It’s not fair that I have to make a sacrifice while people like her and her husband don’t have to. She should be required to change her energy consumption habits like the rest of us.

    So David, my point is that hiking electricty and other energy prices will not be an incentive for higher income earners to make the right environmental choices as they will just pay the difference and continue to pollute. It just hurts low and medium income earners. We need non-monetary incentives to get everyone to do their fair share to reduce consumption regardless of income.

  2. I’m glad you brought that point up.

    I guess my main point in this post, and many others, is that it’d be nice to get a look at what people do naturally when the government’s own artificial incentives aren’t screwing them up first, before we start banning things outright. Agriculture policy is far worse than electricity in this regard, but in many areas we spend a wild amount of time trying to figure out how to fix the unintended consequences of other policies that maybe aren’t working all that well themselves.

    I don’t have a fully worked-out response to the broader point you raise: “It’s not fair that I have to make a sacrifice while people like her and her husband don’t have to. She should be required to change her energy consumption habits like the rest of us.”

    I definitely see the argument. Even in proto-liberatrian thought like John Locke’s, the wild stuff of the world belongs to all of us in common, so it follows that if the wild stuff of the world needs saving, we should all share pretty much equally in the burdens that saving it brings.

    On the other hand, I’m not convinced that this principle can effectively be put into practice. The well-off (whether that’s defined by money or influence or whatever) always have an easier time than the poorly-off, even in supposedly egalitarian societies. Canada’s equal-care-for-all health system sees the very rich buying private care in the states while others sit on waiting lists, for instance, and there’s ultimately nothing we can do about it.

    My instinct is that the most effective environment policies will acknowledge that and try to work with it, rather than struggling against it.

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