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Publisher's Letter

Saving energy is not the issue

Back in the April 2007 issue we ridiculed the Federal Government’s proposed ban on incandescent lamps (introduced by the then Liberal Environment minister Malcolm Turnbull). In fact, we had a fairly detailed article on why the whole proposal was impractical. None of what we said has ever been refuted (nor can it be) and the amount of energy subsequently saved in typical households due to the edict is vanishingly small. Most householders would not be able to identify any reduction at all from their electricity bills. In fact, I will wager that most households would now be using more electricity, even if they have substituted all their incandescent lights, because lighting is a quite small component of domestic electricity bills.

In the commercial area, in offices, shops and factories, lighting is a bigger component of energy use, typically around 30%, so it is worth looking for savings. However, most offices and factories use very few incandescent lamps; they mostly use fluorescent tubes or even more efficient forms of gas discharge lighting. But fluorescent lighting has become more efficient in recent years and this is the reason for the feature article on slashing lighting energy costs in this issue.

In the first instance, this exercise came about because all the lighting at the SILICON CHIP offices was looking decidedly dingy. The tubes were overdue for replacement and all the prismatic diffusers needed cleaning.

The outcome was that we got more light in the office and cut the energy use by half. But that only means that our total annual electricity use will drop by about 15%, since we estimate that lighting was about 30% of our total. By the way, I don’t think the reduction in fluorescent light consumption will have much effect on our air-conditioning energy. It might reduce slightly in summer but there would be an equivalent increase in winter and would probably balance out over the year.

Ultimately, the estimated saving of about $400 a year is hardly worth worrying about, considering that our annual electricity bill is such a small proportion of our overall costs. So was it worth doing? Yes, but I would not advocate that all businesses do it unless they need to change fluoro tubes anyway. And while our payback period is quite short, it could be quite different in other establishments.

All of which serves to demonstrate that reducing lighting electricity use is only fiddling in the margins as far as overall energy use is concerned. If Australians really want to make a large difference in energy use, we would all need to make very big investments in public transport, drive smaller cars and so on. And while smaller cars are selling well, there has also been a big increase in sales of SUVs, so it suggests many consumers are not worried about fuel bills or energy use.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the only way that most consumers, and the country as a whole, will ever make a significant reduction in energy use is by governments taking action. But any action will need to be far more credible than the ban on incandescent lamps, subsidised installation of roof insulation, free energy audits, subsidised replacement of hot water systems with solar and heat pump systems and so on.

As far as electricity consumption is concerned, current Australian government edicts seem to be driven more by “carbon-pollution” reduction mantras than any sensible strategy. Those same governments seem to be unconcerned about the increasing number of coal mines, coal seam gas, natural gas and other schemes to exploit fossil fuels.

If governments were really concerned about carbon dioxide emissions they would go to nuclear power. Then nobody would worry about reducing electricity consumption, apart from the question of cost.

Leo Simpson

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