Life Cycle Analysis

February 28, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Determining the environmental impact of a product is a complex process – The Washington Post.

This article from the Washington Post is a good introduction to the ideas and regulations behind Life Cycle Analysis of products and industrial processes. Life Cycle Analysis forms  part of the back bone of my project, specifically trying to help us all understand that every choice we make comes with impacts. Sometimes the impacts are far from obvious.

Take for example the push to get people to switch their lightbulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent, as a way of being green. The CFL’s are more energy efficient, and supposedly last longer, although I have not found that to be the case. The impact of introducing mercury into millions of homes was overlooked, so it seems. Now if you drop a CFL, you have an environmental problem on your hands. There are recycling programs for CFL’s, both Home Depot and Rona will take them, but are people aware? They should be, but if not the CFL’s go to landfills.

Was this greenwashing? It is an example of the importance of life cycle analysis. Better regulations around life cycle analysis are critical to being able to make better choices for the future. We cannot just consider wind, for example, sustainable because we know the wind will always blow. The impacts of harnessing the wind are the key element. The resources needed to build the wind turbines, the lifespan of the turbine, what can be recycled at the end of the turbines lifespan, and what cannot be recycled must be accounted for. This process would be applied to any energy system like oil sands, coal, nuclear, and solar.

Then each energy system would be evaluated as to how it adds to the global system. The current pushback against nuclear will force governments to make some hard choices. In Germany, retiring all of the nuclear power plants may result in greater reliance on coal. By 2050 all of the US’s fleet of nuclear reactors will be retired. Without new nuclear facilities to replace the old ones, how will the US make up the electricity shortfall? If the choice is for wind, where will the back up capacity come from, because Americans like to have reliable electricity 24/7?

Some energy sources might better suited for a local decentralized system, and others needed to provide base load power for major centres. After applying life cycle analysis we may determine that electricity from wind is valuable in some applications and not others. Exploitation of oil sands might be determined to have too many negatives to outweigh the positives, or a decision could be made that says oil sands are acceptable under certain conditions that may limit speed of growth or other factors. The choices are not going to be easy.

Our energy needs are great. Making honest determinations of the value that various energy sources provide us compared to the impacts is a healthy approach.

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Life Cycle Analysis

  1. Gar Lipow says:

    There have been many LCAs about CFLs. The mercury saved in less coal burning outweighs the mercury in the lamps. I’m not going to link extensively, because you are the one with the documentary project, so you damn well have an obligation to do your homework. One random link turned up by google http://www.thewatt.com/?q=node/175, but there is an extensive literature. And if you have done your homework, then your statement that “The impact of introducing mercury into millions of homes was overlooked, so it seem” was extremely careless. If you want to cite countervailing studies, fine, but any study that does not include the mercury saved by burning less coal is not worth considering.

    • Thank you for the comment, and for prodding me to consider what I write. I’m not comparing mercury from coal powered plants to mercury from CFL’s. Both are bad. There have been lot’s of LCA’s on compact fluorescent, but ask the average consumer if they are aware of them? Or if they know they are bring mercury into their homes? Or how to deal with a clean up from dropping one? My post does not make a value judgment about CFL’s, rather it’s about awareness. I’m asking the question was it fair to label CFL’s as green if it includes a toxic substance? Getting people to use more efficient lightbulbs is important, and finding better ways to produce electricity than traditional coal technology is very important.

      You mention any study that does not include the mercury from burning coal is a fair question if the electricity is coming from coal, although even then, how much mercury is okay? But, what about areas where people get their electricity from nuclear, hydro, wind or solar, where mercury is not an issue? You point out one area – coal, but our energy system is more complex than that. People need to be educated on these issues, and I know I don’t have all the answers, or that I have read all the research. What I do hope is to encourage people to think about what the choices are, and how do we value one option over another. Your response, and hopefully continued response are important to push the dialogue. My request though is that you keep it civil and respectful.

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