CFLLast week I had the pleasure of helping out with a 5 minute TV segment on light bulb exchange and going carbon neutral. It was for a local cable-access show called Maui Daily, produced at the Akaku Maui Community TV station (a great local resource!) and our dear friend, local artist and all-around super-chick Stephanie Sachs. The idea sprung from a session of brainstorming we had about coming up with good guerilla environmental tactics – no, not vandalizing Hummers, but rather replacing all of the incandescent light bulbs in the big hotel and condo complexes around Maui with compact fluorescent (CFL) ones. It turns out that about 93% of Hawaii’s electricity comes from burning diesel oil, which isn’t the cleanest source of energy (hey, better than petroleum tar). CFLs are far more efficient than incandescents, using 25% of the electricity for the same brightness. They have also gotten super cheap ($1.50/bulb) and are available in COSTCO-esque bulk quantities. And given that electricity rates are above $.30/kWh on Maui, this might be a good way to save building owners a little cash too (guerrilla niceness tactics!). So why not?

I want to be neutral

I was particularly interested in this idea because it turns out I’m a major carbon polluter. To the tune of 20+ tons/year, about 3 times as much as the average American. It’s all that flying back and forth between Boston, Maui and La Campanas. And the fact that our home here on Maui is fully solar-powered doesn’t help to alleviate my environmental faux-pas. So following the lead of our dear Mr. Gore (who proved that you CAN win a Nobel prize and an Oscar in the same year), I decided to become carbon neutral. And one way of doing this was to replace a lot of light bulbs.

And I mean a LOT of light bulbs.

Here’s the math: CFLs save 75% of the electricity use by incandescents, so the CFL equivalent of a typical 60W incandescent bulb uses only 15W of juice, saving 45W/bulb. Now, assuming that the average household has 10 bulbs that are on for an average of 4 hours/day (including those that you keep on overnight), replacing those bulbs saves about 1.8 kWh/day (which, incidentally, is half the power we produce at home on sunny days), or about 660 kWh/year.

How much carbon pollution does this prevent? Using numbers from the US Department of Energy and the Alternative Energy Action Network, I estimate that for every 1 kWh of energy produced by MECO, 1.4 lbs of CO2 are released. So 660 kWh/year of less electricity translates into about 0.46 less tons of CO2 released. Great! so all I have to do is replace 430 light bulbs to offset my carbon footprint!

But this is where the math breaks down. Just buying the bulbs alone would cost me $700, and it takes several days to replace that many bulbs. And of course CO2 is released in the manufacture and transport of the bulbs, and I have to burn gas in my car to get the new bulbs to all the places I want to replace and the old bulbs to recycling centers (on Maui this means the trash, grrrr…). All in all, I’d probably have to replace twice or three times as many bulbs to really go carbon neutral, costing me upwards of $2000 and a good few weeks of my time. Not such a great way to reduce my carbon footprint after all.

Grandma’s got some new lights

But still a good idea for saving energy and money, so the Akaku segment went ahead as planned. Gen and I did some studio talking-head stuff (Gen did a second segment on recycling incandescents and CFLs, the latter of which contain small amounts of mercury), then headed out to our light-bulb replacement target – an assisted living facility called Roselani Place in Kahului (we had intended to do Stephanie’s condo as well as Harbor Lights, but both had already replaced their bulbs – good on ’em!). A wonderful, renovated apartment complex with cute little tutus watching TV and chatting with their pals – I totally wanted to stay for the couch volleyball game.

Turns out they need CFLs badly – 900 incandescent light bulbs happily burning away every day, adding to Roselani’s $4000/month electricity bill. So we brought a camera and a few dozen bulbs, interviewed the marketing director Diane Alba-Means, and spent a hour replacing a grand total of … get ready for it … 20 light bulbs.

Not too productive, to say the least, and I’m positive that with all our gear this was not a carbon neutral activity.

However, it struck me in the end that this was a great way to amplify one’s charitable contribution to a place like Roselani. I spent about $30 on the bulbs we replaced; those bulbs are going to save Roselani something like $400 over the course of the year in electricity costs (did I mention $0.30/kWh on Maui?). Where else can you get a 10-fold return on an investment?

And hey – they still need 880 more bulbs!

Selling out

A fun little segment to be sure (I’ll post it on YouTube when its done), but none of this helped me achieve the holy grail of carbon neutrality. So I did what any good American would do – I bought my way out of it. I donated about $190 to Pop!Tech’s Carbon Initiative Project to buy 24 tons of carbon offsets – less than a third of what I would have spent on CFLs. Half is going to a solar irrigation project in Kalale, Benin; half is going to project to restore native forests in Rivas, Nicaragua.

Will this save the world? Probably not. But I sure felt better, in fact quite proud of myself for embracing carbon neutrality. Yea me!

Of course my Hawaiian friend Trinette laughed at me when I told her about this. “You bought off your pollution? That’s just about the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”

Any place I can go to offset my smug pollution?