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APICS magazine November/December 2012
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  • Selected Articles on Sustainability

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Shedding Some Light on Sustainability

by Tim Becker | November/December 2011 | 21 | 6

Illuminating green lessons

Sustainability decisions rarely are clear-cut. The unfortunate truth is that many sustainability efforts fall in the feel-good/look-good category rather than the do-good category. That is, many programs (unintentionally) do little to improve the environment and, sometimes, actually do harm. Oddly enough, this point was driven home to me by a middle school science fair project.

Like many parents, I find myself drawn into my children’s school projects. The science fair project is the mother of all such endeavors. It is a three-month slog for student (and parent), from topic selection in early September to final judging in early December, with countless milestones in between. Last year, my daughter, Jaime,and I investigated energy efficiency. Replacement of incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) seemed a no-brainer. After all, CFLs produce equivalent light while consuming much less electric ity. However, as we delved deeper into the issue, we found it wasn’t quite so straightforward. In fact, the “CFL versus incandescent” question provides impor tant sustainability lessons, which com pany leaders might be wise to learn—many involving often subtle trade-offsto be considered when undertaking sustainability initiatives.

Lesson 1: Calculating the net benefit of sustainability initiatives can be complicated. More than 90 percent of the electricity consumed by incan descent light bulbs goes to generating heat, not light. On the other hand, CFLs generate more light and much less heat per unit of electricity consumed. In fact, CFLs use about 75 percent less electric ity to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb. So all that heat generated by an incandescent is wasted, right? Not necessarily. The answer  actually depends on where you live and the season of the year. On a cold winter day, the heat from incandescent bulbs actually reduces your heating load. It is only during hot weather that an incandescent’s heat is unwanted, as it increases your cooling load, which increases your cooling costs. Accordingly, the business case for CFLs degrades in colder climates.

In fact, the business case may turn negative in some situations. In short,  the net CFL benefit is proportional to the ratio of your cooling load to your heating load. A higher ratio translates  to more benefits. You will achieve the oft-touted 75 percent reduction in lighting costs only if you are cooling your facilities year-round, such as in the tropics.

Lesson 2: Large, up-front sustain ability investment demands consid erable downstream benefits. Many sustainability technologies involve additional investment over and above that made in more conventional tech nologies. Investments must be recouped through energy (or other) savings. For example, CFLs (without subsidies) generally are about four times more expensive than incandescent light bulbs. Fortunately, CFLs, when continuously energized, last 5 to 10 times longer thanincadescents, so the high initial costs are recouped through longer bulb life spans and energy savings. Unfortunately, there are conditions (such as moisture, cold, and frequent cycling) that significantly reduce CFL life spans and their return on investment.

Lesson 3: Less tangible benefits often are overlooked or underesti mated. The longer life of CFLs can result in lower labor and safety costs. The lower change-out frequency of CFLs means fewer maintenance hours, par ticularly in facilities with hard-to-reach or highly distributed lighting. Accidents, such as falls, resulting from lighting replacement also should decrease. Additionally, fire and burn hazards associated with hot incandescent bulbs are mostly eliminated with CFLs. Such benefits can significantly and positively affect the business case.

Lesson 4: Computing societal benefits requires a lot of due diligence. Many company decision makers are starting to consider societal benefits in their sustainability decisions, even though they often do not influence the bottom line. There is much to consider in estimating societal benefits. For example, in almost all cases, CFLs are more energy efficient than incandes cents. And lower electricity use means lower carbon emissions. However, com puting the reduction of carbon emis sions can be tricky. It requires knowing how your electricity is generated by your utility. Further complicating the issue, this allocation changes according to the time of year or even the time of day.

Lesson 5: Societal benefits must be netted against societal costs. As with most clean energy technologies, CFLs also have a downside. For example, each CFL contains 3 to 5 milligrams of mercury, which is a highly toxic sub stance. If a bulb is broken, certain safety procedures need to be followed to avoid adverse health effects. The vast major ity of CFLs also are not currently being recycled, which means some of their mercury is leaking into the environment from landfills, where most CFLs end up. (However, it should be noted that mercury also is emitted from coal-fired power plants, so the net cost-benefit depends again on the sources  of electricity.)

CFLs contain electronic components that are not being recycled and contain additional toxic substances, includ ing lead and rare earth metals. When considering such toxic substances, it should be noted that almost all CFLs are manufactured overseas in countries that may have lax or loosely enforced safety, health, and environmental regulations. The mercury poisoning of hundreds of workers at multiple facilities in China recently has been documented.

Another consideration is embodied energy, which is energy used in the manufacture and transportation of components and the finished good itself. There are other materials expended in the production and transporta tion of CFLs. They require twice the materials (by weight) of incandescent bulbs. Furthermore, the materials used in CFLs, such as rare earth metals, are more valuable and more highly engineered or processed than the materials used in incandescent bulbs. Also, because of their use of mercury, recycling of CFLs will increase, further raising their life cycle costs. It turns out that CFLs require about 12 times more energy to manufacture and recycle thanincadescents do.

Because of their mercury (and their fragility), CFLs also need more and stronger packaging. This drives up transportation costs, including transpor tation energy costs. Fortunately, the sum total of manufacturing, transportation, and recycling costs appears to be a small fraction of CFLs’ potential savings from energy conservation and much longer replacement cycles. However, this is not true of all clean energy solutions. Solar photovoltaic, hybrid/electric vehicle batteries, and ethanol, for example,consume vast amounts of energy in their manufacture. In fact, some analysts have posited that more energy is expended than is produced or conserved with ethanol and lithium ion batteries.

Lesson 6: Differences in the  performance characteristics of clean alternatives need to be carefully con sidered. CFLs and incandescent bulbs perform differently. And based on these differences, CFLs may not be appropri ate for all uses or conditions. Following are some performance differences and associated implications:
  • Frequent cycling dramatically reduces CFL longevity. A five-minute on/off cycle reduces a CFL’s life span to that of an incandescent. The US Energy Star program suggests that fluorescent lamps be left on when leaving a room for less than 15 minutes to mitigate this problem. However, this action entails higher energy consumption. CFL users must choose between a lower bulb life span and higher energy consumption. Either way, the business case impact is negative.
  • Delays of up to one minute (and sometimes more) before full light is achieved are common in CFLs. This may make CFLs less suitable for applications such as motion-activated or security lighting.
  • CFL luminosity declines over time. The luminosity decrease is expo nential, with the highest reduc tion occurring after a bulb is first installed. CFLs can be unfit for situ ations where consistent luminosity is required.
  • Poorer performance and higher failure rates make CFLs potentially a poor choice in some environments.
  • The quality of CFL lighting also can be poor. CFLs tend to produce a harsher light with more glare. Accordingly, CFLs may be ill-suited for situations where softer light is desired, such as higher-end retail displays or work situations where eye strain is a particular concern. There also are gaps in CFLs’ spectrum of light that can make some color matching and color code identifica tion tasks more difficult. Newer-generation CFLs are mitigating these issues and producing a higher quality of light, albeit at an even higher cost than standard CFLs.
  • Some isolated CFL issues have been experienced with degradation of power quality, infrared signal interference, iridescence of window film, interference with CFL ballast from other electronics, and damage to light-sensitive materials from UV emissions.
  • Lastly, CFLs do not fit all existing light fixtures and may not be  compatible with existing dimming technologies. However, CFL technol ogy advances are solving both these issues.

Increasingly, companies’ sustainability decisions will be exposed to stakeholder scrutiny. Lip service and window dress ing initiatives will no longer pass muster with increasingly discerning constituen cies. Company leaders must get smarter about sustainability technologies—about what works and what doesn’t. This means that decision makers must under stand the various and interacting trade-offs in choosing one technology over another. Unfortunately, even picking a light bulb is not as simple as it seems.

Tim Becker is founder of Probity Business Group, a consultancy focused on strategy, growth, technology, and operations improvement. He was a partner withAccenture. Becker also consulted for AT Kearney and Halliburton. He may be contacted at

Editor’s note: This is Tim Becker’s last “Executive View.” We at APICS magazine offer our sincere thanks for his excellent contributions to the publication and wish him continued success.


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