Being Green – Seeing the Light

Hi Folks:

Well, Friday is upon us and that means I’m turning my attention to ‘being green’ once again.  I labeled this post ‘Seeing the Light’ for two reasons.  On one hand, with the plethora of information that’s coming online today in all aspects of being ‘green’, sustainability, corporate responsibility, etc. it seems that more and more people are indeed ‘seeing the light’.  Further to that, as I type this I’m listening to the TEDxSOMA live and the focus of this series of talks is on interconnection/ interactivity, sharing ideas and communication.  We all share this little blue marble, and we all need to work together to find a better way to live on it.  In the book ‘The Sacred Balance‘, David Suzuki used this analogy (allowing for my memory here):  take a basketball, and overlay a sheet of tissue paper onto this ball.  The basketball represents the earth (yes, the earth is an oblate spheroid, but stay with it).  All life on earth exists in a layer comparatively similar to that layer of tissue paper.  Visualizing that changes how one sees the world.

Seeing the light also means something completely different because artificial light has revolutionized how we exist in the world.  Whereas we once operated largely from sunrise to sunset, artificial light changed that forever.  We shifted from torches to candles to oil lamps, and in about 1809 Humphry Davy invented the first electric light.  This idea was latched onto by others, and Thomas Edison finally perfected the idea for the vacuum bulb that we know today as the incandescent light bulb.  They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, some have gases inside the bulb, but by and large the idea hasn’t changed.  I’m not going to try to guess the impact of the electric light on the industrial revolution, but it was nothing short of revolutionary.  The biggest problem with the incandescent bulb however, is that it’s horribly inefficient.  Any child who ever used an ‘Easy Bake Oven‘ could tell you that an incandescent bulb is primarily a heat source that also gives off some light.  Somewhere around 80% of the energy used by an incandescent bulb is lost in giving off heat.  Halogen lamps are a type of incandecent that were first used in the movie projection industry in the 1960s.  They’re now used in car headlamps as well as in residential and commercial use.  Halogen bulbs use less energy and last longer than typical incandescent bulbs, but still generate a lot of heat.

Now, Peter Cooper Hewitt developed the first mercury vapour lamp at the turn of the 20th century, but it was about 40 years later that GE brought the fluorescent light as we know it to the marketplace.  Fluorescent bulbs use about 1/4 of the energy of an incandescent bulb to create an equivalent amount of light (in lumens), they don’t produce very much heat, and are better than incandescent bulbs in several ways.  Engineer Ed Hammer designed the first compact fluorescent bulb in the 1970s, after being told repeatedly that it couldn’t be done.  Today CFLs as they’re commonly known are slowly replacing standard incandescent bulbs in both residential and commercial use.  CFLs have a higher up-front cost than incandescent bulbs, but they last longer and use significantly less energy.  The downsides of fluorescent bulbs in general are three-fold.  For one they tend to have a ‘greenish’ cast (yes, daylight and specific colour temperature bulbs are available), they tend to flicker, and they’re considered hazardous waste when it comes to disposal because of the mercury contained within the tube.  Fortunately more and more CFL recycling centres are becoming available.

The new kid on the block when it comes to lighting are LEDs.  LED stands for ‘Light Emitting Diode’, and very basically a diode is a simple electronic device with two pins that only allows electricity to flow in one direction.  From Wikipedia: “When a diode is forward biased (switched on), electrons are able to recombine with holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of photons. This effect is called electroluminescence and the color of the light (corresponding to the energy of the photon) is determined by the energy gap of the semiconductor. An LED is usually small in area (less than 1 mm x 1mm), and integrated optical components are used to shape its radiation pattern and assist in reflection.”  Probably most people today have heard of LEDs; this being January people are putting away their new LED Christmas lights, and they may even have a flashlight that makes use of LEDs.  The advantages of LEDs for lighting are many, and continue to be explored.  They’re relatively simple devices, and cheap to manufacture.  They last very long (standard is 30-50,000 hours but up to 100,000 hours is possible), they’re small, robust (they don’t care if you drop them on the floor), they don’t generate heat, and in comparison to incandescents they use a lot less energy.  They also don’t have mercury, as do fluorescent bulbs.

LEDs do have their downsides.  For example, they have a higher initial cost and they’re very sensitive to voltage and temperature fluctuations.  Overheating can cause big problems for LED lighting.  So far the highest light/energy ratio (lumens/Watt) in LEDs has been in climate-controlled labs.  Still, I can remember when a pocket calculator that could add, subtract, multiply and divide cost $100.  It wasn’t that long ago we broke the 1GHz barrier for computer processors.  For me, I can see LEDs as having a ‘bright’ future in both residential and commercial lighting.

Now, to this point I’ve purposely stayed away from listing commercial enterprises, manufacturers and the like as I don’t want to seem to have a preference of company A over company B.  I’m going to break with that here, partly because I think LEDs deserve a lot more attention and partly because there simply aren’t that many companies selling LEDs (yet).  Although certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some of them.  I don’t have any recommendations for any specific company; I figure people are intelligent enough to do their own due diligence:

Of course the best lighting system in the world comes from our closest star, a mere 150 million km away.  One of the best and most powerful elements of green design today is maximizing the use of natural daylight.  This can be achieved using skylights, lightshelves, light funnels and the like.  We also need systems that turn off the lights when nobody’s using them, primarily because some people don’t grasp the concept of turning off the switch when leaving the room.  The most advanced systems will measure the amount of natural light coming into a room and balance the artificial light based on the amount of natural light available.  They also use occupancy sensors to turn off the lights when nobody’s home.  Now that’s a great idea (where’s the lightbulb icon when you need one?)

Okay, as usual I’ve collected some other sites you might be interested in:

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