Social Studies April 2007

Turning Lights Down, and Profits Up

To listen to many environmentalists talk, you would assume that capitalism is the enemy of conservation. They should visit Pratt & Whitney's turbine module factory.

Pratt & Whitney's turbine module factory in East Hartford, Conn., makes some of the most advanced jet engines in the world. The factory floor comprises more than 10 acres of sophisticated American engineering. Metal parts are machined to tolerances as small as ten-thousandth of an inch, then processed and coated to function smoothly at temperatures above the metal's melting point. One day last week, however, several company executives and a reporter gazed not at the marvels around them, but up. Way up. At lightbulbs.

"It's not rocket science," says Mark Kopera, apparently without irony. Kopera is Pratt & Whitney's manager for energy services operations—in English, the company's energy czar. Gesturing overhead, he points out an admixture of bulbs. Most of the lights bathing the factory floor in daylight-strength illumination are incandescent globes, which, Kopera says, consume 450 watts each and generate intense heat at the bulb's surface; some, however, are fluorescent tubes of a new sort, which consume only 250 watts and run cool. If the new fluorescents can shed enough light on their subjects, this factory and others will be converted to fluorescent fixtures.

Pratt & Whitney is a division of United Technologies, a Fortune 50 company with almost $48 billion in revenues last year. I wonder aloud: Are lightbulbs a bit picayune for a big multinational unit of an even bigger multinational conglomerate? To the contrary, says Kopera. Lighting is a "humongous" cost, accounting for a third of the company's power bills. "We're all about saving money here," he says.

U.S. environmentalism has come a long way since the corporate-bashing of the 1960s and '70s; but even today, to listen to many environmentalists talk, you would assume that capitalism is the enemy of conservation. Doesn't the profit motive encourage a throwaway culture? Doesn't commercialism breed waste? Not necessarily, and no. Lightbulbs are examples of why.

"Basically it's waste elimination," George David, the chairman and CEO of United Technologies, said in an interview last week, when asked about energy conservation. Like a lot of manufacturing companies, United Technologies finds itself under pressure to cut costs, and energy is a costly input.

Moreover, David foresees an energy-short world for decades to come, as China and India, among other rapidly developing countries, create new surges in demand. Alternative fuels, he says, will eventually bring relief, but not on a sizable scale for decades to come.

But conservation works right now and is, economically speaking, "exactly like renewable energy."

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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