Charles Komanoff


Komanoff essay, "Edison Meet Carvel," April 2001

I wrote this in the spring of 2001, around the time Dick Cheney was disparaging energy conservation as "a sign of personal virtue but not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." (For non-New Yorkers, Tom Carvel was a beloved purveyor of soft ice cream in and around the Big Apple.) - CK

Edison, Meet Carvel

When I boarded the subway train the other day, who knew that within minutes I'd be preaching about light bulbs like a subway evangelist?

In my household in New York City, we don't use ordinary bulbs, but energy- saving "compact fluorescent lamps." The bathroom light, one of the dozens that illuminate my house, had expired that morning, after years of use, and I had stowed it in my knapsack to buy a replacement.

As I squeezed into the train, a tourist from California made room for me to sit. I might have known that this was to be no ordinary ride. My benefactor and I started chatting, and soon she was bemoaning her skyrocketing utility bill.

Quick as a wink, I pulled out my bulb. "Your salvation starts here," I said. "When you get home, unscrew all your incandescents and replace 'em with these. Watch your electricity bill take a nosedive."

The bulb's intriguing shape was attracting glances. The bottom half resembled a giant half-egg, flat side up. The fluorescent tube on top was sculpted into a triple ice cream swirl. Thomas Edison, meet Tom Carvel.

This bulb, I told the gaping straphangers, had outlasted two sixpacks of incandescents. More importantly, it used only one-fourth as much electricity to make the same amount of light. My bulb had cost fifteen bucks to buy but had saved me a hundred dollars in electricity costs.

Not using compact fluorescents, I said, was like lighting your house by burning dollar bills. Worse, actually, when you counted the social costs of using more power and making more pollution.

Soon my end of the car was buzzing with questions. Who makes these lamps? (Sylvania and General Electric, among others.) Who sells them? (lighting stores and Home Depot, among others.) Do they screw in like regular bulbs? (This one does; some models require a special socket but save you even more money.)

The train rumbled on. "If every home and workplace used these bulbs," I intoned, "we could kiss power shortages goodbye. Put the latest energy- saving appliances in every kitchen, too, and we'd have a power glut that would last for decades."

As an energy economist, I know that America needs a turnaround in national energy policy. What my subway conversation, and many other conversations, tell me is that America is also ready for it. People want positive action against global warming. They want to get off the oil rollercoaster. They want wild places preserved for future generations. They want high-paying jobs manufacturing worthwhile products. And they want an end to blackouts and electricity rate gouging.

Energy efficiency does all these. As now do wind and solar power, thanks to cost-cutting advances in solid-state physics and electronic controls.

Yet politicians consistently ignore efficiency and renewable energy and call only for more power plants and oil drilling.

In his energy address last month, New York's Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani lamented that no new major power plant had been built in the city for decades. But he overlooked the "conservation power plants" - the city's new stock of energy-efficient appliances, lights and buildings - that already are the equivalent, in energy savings, of several mid-sized power plants.

Worse, the Bush Administration recently watered down new federal standards to make future air conditioners even more efficient. This shortsighted move will soon require construction of a dozen fossil-fuel plants to make up the difference.

What can explain a policy that trashes both the environment and the economy? Is it ideology or ignorance? Or is it simply too tempting to use energy shortages to justify a 21st-Century giveaway to energy corporations?

Whatever the reasons, my impromptu subway seminar made it clear that Americans understand the energy issue better than their leaders want them to.

Energy efficiency is an idea whose time has definitely come. Let's not allow the Lords of Extraction, the miners and the drillers, to bury it for their own advantage.