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Let there be light

Govt should make sure that basic power generation is eco-friendly. To do this, we need to put our money into renewable energy, writes Kumkum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2007 05:18 IST
kumkum Dasgupta
kumkum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

The campaign against the century-old incandescent light bulb has put environment-conscious consumers in a dilemma. While a section of the green lobby is promoting Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), another group is against the the switchover because CFLs contain mercury, a deadly neurotoxin. And, if discarded haphazardly they can pose serious environmental and health problems. While it is true that many European countries are opting for CFLs, it is important to remember that they already have in place stringent collection and recycling laws for discarded bulbs. Some experts are more keen on light emitting diodes (LEDs). At present LEDs have limited use because their energy intensity is low. LEDs use 40 per cent less energy than CFLs and have a 10-year life.

There is no doubt that there are very solid arguments in favour of CFLs. Greenpeace, which is spearheading the ‘Ban the Bulb’ campaign, says CFLs use only 20% of the energy used by a light bulb. Every day, India uses 18,000 MW of electricity for lighting and much of it is wasted due to inefficient light bulbs. By replacing all ordinary light bulbs with CFLs, Greenpeace claims, India can reduce its CO2 emissions by 55 million tonnes. As far as mercury in CFLs is concerned, the group says coal, which fires our thermal-based power plants, also contains mercury and accounts for 70 per cent of mercury emissions in the country. So, CFLs, they argue, will reduce the energy requirement and hence the mercury emissions from thermal power plants. Agreeing that dangers of mercury contamination persist if these new-age bulbs are not properly disposed, Greenpeace says technology for safe disposal and recycling is available and the only “challenge is to ensure that such systems are implemented in India”.

This is where some green campaigners have a problem and justifiably so. They say India lacks a proper waste management system and if CFLs (each bulb contains five to 10 milligrams of mercury) are made mandatory, it will mean that the lighting sector’s annual consumption of mercury will multiply by more than 10 times.

Delhi-based NGO Toxics Links says that in the absence of proper recycling systems, CFLs will be disposed along with other waste and in the long-run there will be mercury contamination. Mercury damages the central nervous system, endocrine system, kidneys and other organs. And, considering that we still dispose our fluorescent tubelights and thermometers with household waste, making CFLs mandatory does seem quite scary. In the US, the Environment Protection Agency treats broken fluorescent lamps as hazardous and these are not sent to landfills. Instead, they are sent to recycling centres that break the lamps under special conditions and safely recover the mercury.

So are CFLs an interim arrangement till better options like LEDs come in? Yes, says Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy campaigner Vinuta Gopal. She adds that such interim measures are necessary because we have very little time to cut back emissions.

The Indian government has also joined the CFL bandwagon. Power minister Shushilkumar Shinde has announced that the ministry will launch a ‘Bachat CFL’ scheme for BPL families with a buyback provision for discarded lamps to minimise environmental hazards through negligent disposal. Electric Lamp and Component Manufacturers’ Association’s Sunil Sikka says that the industry is proactive and is talking to NGOs to firm up buyback plans and safe disposal techniques.

While moves like these are required, one wonders whether such piecemeal strategies will ever solve our problems. And, will it be prudent to push for a technology without putting in place credible safeguards? Instead of pushing CFL programmes ahead first, the government would do better to put safety norms in place, rehaul waste disposal techniques not only in metros but also in second-tier towns and rural areas and educate people about the hazards. Take a straw poll in your nearby market and you will see that most sellers of electric items have no clue about the mercury content in CFLs.

The government should also make sure that basic power generation is environment-friendly. To do this, we need to put our money into renewable energy. Though the input costs and investments are high, it is energy-efficient and clean. Renewable energy is also a good option for remote areas, which have little or no access to the main power lines. For this, we need to have a much more coordinated effort between the Power Ministry and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. This partnership should be strengthened by introducing micro-financing in villages so that residents can opt for cleaner sources of power and thereby become part of a cleaner and greener world.

First Published: Jun 04, 2007 23:39 IST