A Better Idea



Was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster only the first of many? A recent U.N. report raises the ominous prospect of 40 more Chernobyls in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. A subsequent mishap at the Sosnovy Bor power plant near St. Petersburg reinforced the message. Plainly, the large number of poorly designed, dangerously outdated nuclear power plants in that part of the world posses a major threat to health and safety.

It is a complex problem but one in which a few of the answers are surprisingly simple. Consider just one of them that could have a great impact: a better light bulb.

In the former Soviet Union, lighting alone consumes an amount of energy comparable to that produced by 40 Chernobyls. Much of this lighting is produced in the most energy-wasteful ways imaginable. Efficient, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are almost unknown to the former Soviet states. In North America, sales of such lamps will approach 35 million this year and in Europe 90 million. Sales in the West are doubling every couple of years.

CFLs are similar in size and provide the same amount of light as common incandescent lamps, but they consume only one-fourth the energy. At Western electricity prices, they pay for themselves in about six months; Eastern prices have already risen to nearly half of Western. Depending on the extent of their use, these lamps could save the power produced by about five to 10 Chernobyls in the former Soviet Union.

Add to this the opportunities presented by a new generation of efficient long fluorescent tubes that offer about 10 percent savings in non-residential buildings plus substantially better color quality. Running these lamps with efficient and flicker-free electronic ballasts, cleaning dusty and yellowing fixtures and inserting aluminum reflectors to get the same light out of fewer lamps could bring the total savings toward 50 percent. Tally up another five to 10 Chernobyls.

To be sure, there are obstacles: a lack of hard currency, the financial risks that accompany technological change and the challenge of implementation. But there are far more serious obstacles facing those who would try to fix up existing nuclear plants or find acceptable alternatives to them. In the end, economics tip the scales toward increasing efficiency.

We applaud the West's growing concern about the problem, but the new proposals to spend $10 billion to $20 billion on supply-side fixes are misguided. A less costly approach is to first invest in improved efficiency. For $1 billion, a hundred million CFLs could be diverted to the former Soviet Union from Western markets. Each $1 billion thus spent would turn off five or more nuclear plants.

Alternatively, the West could solve the hard-currency problem by financing construction of, say, 10 CFL factories (at $7 million each) in the former Soviet Union. Electric utilities there or agents from other sectors could moderate the financial risk by guaranteeing to buy the first five years' production (30 million CFLs per factory). Joint ventures between electric utilities in North America and Eastern Europe are already being discussed as a means of marshaling investment in energy efficiency.

In addition to modernizing lighting, about 10 other categories of energy-efficiency strategies are popular in the United States today. Using these, the industry's Electric Power Research Institute estimates a 50 percent across-the-board savings opportunity in this country with a three-year payback time. If our relatively inefficient neighbors to the East were to use the same strategies (something that admittedly would have to be done with great care) the likely result would be greater savings.

In any event, a 50 percent savings in the former Soviet Union would equal 150 of their largest power plants. If they wished, the ex-Soviets could then turn off the most dangerous of their nuclear plants, as well as 20 or so of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. The remaining 100 surplus plants could be used domestically or to sell power to Western Europe for about $25 billion of hard currency each year.

The former Soviet Union is the world's largest producer and consumer of oil (each about 10 million barrels per day), even with its current reduced production. It also has an inefficient economy that uses twice as much energy per unit of GNP as Japan or Western Europe. One result of this inefficiency is that hard-currency oil and gas exports are only about 10 percent of production. With a 50 percent energy-efficiency improvement (in and out of the power sector), exports could zoom to 10 million barrels a day of oil and gas, worth $50 billion each year.

The prospects are bright. Lucrative and innovative solutions seem to be well within reach, if energy planners and policy makers are prepared to recognize the limitations of focusing exclusively on the supply side and realize instead the great gains to be made through greater energy efficiency.

Opportunities for improved energy efficiency are linked to the broader movement toward institutional, managerial and market-oriented reforms and to structural changes the must take place in the former Soviet Union. Making markets for energy-efficient products, Fostering competition, pricing energy realistically, metering energy consumption and improving energy statistics are important building blocks.

Averting the impending nuclear nightmare and slowing environmental degradation wouldn't be the only dividends. Opening new avenues for economic development and creating new financial partnerships would increase international security in many ways. We would all sleep easier as a result.

Aurthur Rosenfeld is a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Center for Building Science at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Evan Mills is the Center's assistant director.

Reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, "Simple Ideas Can Avoid Chernobyls," August 4, 1992, p.6.