Mad Teddy's "Light fantastic" page

Mad Teddy's web-pages

Light fantastic

This page commenced on Sunday, 1st April 2007
(April Fools' Day)

Last night (Saturday, 31st March 2007), more than 30,000 Sydney households and 1,000 businesses switched off their lights, for an hour commencing at 7:30 p.m., "to raise awareness about global warming". (Click here to read more.)

A noble sentiment, perhaps - but did it achieve anything more than a symbolic recognition of the fact that there is public awareness of the now very apparent severe trouble in which our world increasingly finds itself? Did it represent the beginnings of a practical solution? Or was it merely something for people to do to give themselves a good feeling about "being involved" in some way? A gesture, basically?

Reading on in the page whose link appears above, we find that the World Wildlife Fund has been planning "Earth Hour" for ten months, and that the aim is ultimately to have only lights "associated with public safety" left on at night.

On the news tonight, there was an item about a large ice sheet (about 900 square kilometres) becoming detached from a polar region. As I write this, I've forgotten for the moment exactly where this is occurring; but that's not really the issue, because almost every day now, we see and hear news items about this kind of thing happening here and there at either ice-cap - or both - to the point where it's difficult to keep track of particular events. The point is, we clearly have an enormous problem. Do we really think that turning off some lights for a few hours each day is actually going to make any significant difference?

Most power stations in Australia (and probably in other countries too) are powered by the burning of a fossil fuel - coal, in many cases. The heat thus produced is used to boil water, thus producing steam which runs turbines to produce electric power from generators.

So if a significant number of buildings in Sydney - or elsewhere - turn their lights off between two predetermined times, does that mean that one or more generators can simply switch off for that same time-period?

Of course it doesn't. Large amounts of boiling water won't magically stop boiling simply because there is a sudden reduction in demand. If the fires are extinguished as soon as the lights are turned off, the boiling will slow over time; then when the lights are turned back on again, relighting the fires will eventually get the boiling back up to speed - but it will take a while, during which the reduced capability of any power stations involved will cause considerable trouble. This is high-school science - you don't need to be Einstein to figure it out!

No - simple realities dictate that the fires will be kept burning, the water will be kept boiling, and the generators will continue to have the same power capability as they do at any other time, even if it's not all being utilised. In fact, they can't be allowed to slow down, because that would affect the power supply's frequency (50Hz in Australia and Britain; 60Hz in the US, for example) - which must be maintained at a constant value, for very practical reasons.

Naturally, if there's a definite reason to take a generator out of service - perhaps for maintenance - this will be done in a carefully-planned manner, if at all possible to coincide with a projected reduction in power demand over a reasonable length of time. Barring emergencies, it can't be allowed to happen on an ad-hoc basis.

As far as I'm concerned, what happened last night counts as little more than a stunt. Worse, I believe that it actually has a negative effect, because it encourages people who don't understand these things to think that they're actually doing something worthwhile, and thus develop a warm, fuzzy feeling, complacently thinking that they've "done their bit" and can thus rest easy about the matter. "She'll be right, mate!"

But meanwhile the ice sheets just keep right on melting...

Also in the web-page referred to above, there's a reference to a proposed ban on incandescent lights, which (we are told) will be phased out by 2010, basically to be replaced by CFL's (compact fluorescent lights). Click here to read more.

How does this stack up as a sensible idea?

As far as I'm concerned, it's on a par with last night's "hour of darkness" in Sydney: superficially a nice idea; but pretty much devoid of real, meaningful value when examined more closely.

When I first heard about this proposed ban a few weeks ago, various thoughts occurred to me almost simultanously:

1. Those CFL's aren't as compact as we'd like. They may be a bit narrower than incandescent bulbs of comparable brightness, but they're generally longer. In fact, it's quite clear that, often, they quite simply won't fit in light fittings designed for incandescent lights. So we'd have to get new light fittings - quite an expense; and quite frankly, I'm comfortable with our existing fittings. Why should the government arrogate to itself the right to make them obsolete?

2. You can't operate CFL's with light dimmers. Basically, they're either on or off. We have - and enjoy using - our light dimmers in rooms where they're appropriate. Again - why should the government presume to make some of our house's fixtures obsolete?

3. Fluorescent lights have an annoying flicker, and the colour of the light they produce is "harder" than the soft glow of an incandescent. Shouldn't people have the right to a choice of a quality of light with which they are comfortable within their own home?

Okay, I'll admit it - I felt the old rebel blood stirring in my veins. But then, why shouldn't I? I'm only one of many millions of Australians who feel that our lives are already vastly over-regulated.

But perhaps I'm being a bit unreasonable. Maybe, even, I'm actually wrong about some of these points. After all, it's a while since I've considered the matter, and it's possible that the technology has moved on since then.

I've read that it's possible now to get CFL's which can be used with dimmers - but they're somewhat more expensive. Maybe, at a pinch, I can live with that...?

Also, it's quite possible that my assessment of the colour and flicker issues have been, or are being, addressed. Maybe I need to do some more homework before whingeing too loudly about them...?

So I held off creating this web page about the matter - until I saw an article in an electronics magazine, the April 2007 edition of Australia's "Silicon Chip", which raises these issues and a whole lot more besides (warning: Javascript required ).

In the magazine, which I purchased a few days ago, there's an article about the proposed ban on incandescent lights - and its author is not impressed, any more than I am. Some of the issues about CFL's raised in the article:

- they take a while to warm up to full brilliance, and do flicker until then

- their claimed longevity is overstated (especially if switched on/off frequently)

- they don't work with dimmers (as I've already mentioned)

- they don't work with electronic switches, remote controls, timers etc.

- they won't work in fridges (too cold for them to start)

- they don't like vibration, so are not good in microwaves, exhaust fans, cars etc.

- like all fluorescents, they contain mercury and are thus an environmental hazard

- and lots more besides. (Get the mag. and read the article - I recommend it.)

So why has the government hopped onto this particular bandwagon (which apparently started in the US)?

Is it just ignorance, or bad advice? Or is it more likely to be a classic example of what is known in Australia as "wedge politics"?

In Australia, we have a federal election coming up later this year. The Howard government is a past master at using wedge politics to confuse and frighten the public into re-electing it; but I do get a sense that people are finally starting to wake up to its tricks.

The basic idea is that the government seizes on some politically-correct issue to promote so as to give the appearance that it has beaten the opposition to the punch, thus putting them on the back foot so that they are forced to agree to the government's line if they are not to look totally inept. Past issues have involved the Tampa incident (see last link, above), "weapons of mass destruction", and "children overboard". After the election, when the public finally realize that they've been duped, it's too late to do anything about it until the next election, three years later - when the government will pull another rabbit out of the hat and do it all over again. It's a dirty game and this government plays it very well.

If magazine articles, or comments by myself or anyone else, can have the effect of exposing what's happening again (this time with the light bulb issue) before it's too late - then I reckon they'll have done the country a big favour. Here's hoping...

Please - don't misunderstand me, or try to quote me out of context. Incandescent lights are inefficient, and they do waste power. In that sense, fluorescent lights - whether CFL's or the old-fashioned strip types - can be seen as an improvement. It's just that there are other issues to consider also.

"I was crowned...

... with a spike right through my head..."

Another possibility for lighting is provided by the latest in light-emitting diodes (LED's). When these first appeared in the late 1960's, they were not very bright and were available only in certain colours (the best ones were red). However, since then, the technology has developed to the point where it's possible to get really bright LED's in all sorts of colors, including (a somewhat bluish) white - and they take very little current and run cool (whereas incandescents, and - to an extent - fluorescents, get quite warm). Perhaps they're not to a point yet where they can provide serious competition for incandescents and/or fluorescents; but I can see that this may well happen in the not-too-distant future.

Even without that, however, I can still see a place where the friendly, familiar, warm glow of your old-fashioned dimmable incandescent light bulb has a place in our world, for all its inefficiency. If, as I hope, zero-point energy technology is developed to give everyone on the planet access to clean, cheap energy, so that we can cut greenhouse gas production right back, it really won't matter if we use lights which run a bit hot! It all comes down to a matter of balance and common sense.

I'll admit to a bit of irony here. The incandescent light bulb was invented by Thomas Alva Edison, whereas early versions of the fluorescent light were developed by Nikola Tesla (opposite). To some extent it's become traditional for people with an interest in the history of electricity to be somewhat partisan in what may be seen as their "allegiance" to one or the other of these two inventors.

Click here to see a bigger version of this picture.

I make no secret of the fact that I consider Tesla's contribution to be the greater, although there's no question that Edison also gave the world some very good pioneering inventions - notably in the field of sound recording. As far as the two different kinds of lamp are concerned, it's clear to many - myself included - that there's a valid place for each. The irony arises in the fact that, although I'm much more a "fan" of Tesla than I am of Edison, I've chosen to use a variation on the traditional, Edison-style light bulb "bright idea" cartoon as my website's logo.

For all that, the main point I'm trying to make here is that thinking people must always be aware of the fact that the power-hungry will always try to twist the truth about any issue if it suits their purposes - and hence must do whatever is necessary to counter such activity, come what may.

"Look out, kid..."

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