Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Proceed with Caution
By Peter Wilson
The Cambridge Energy Alliance is going door to door in North Cambridge, Massachusetts next month, handing out free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) in return for "inefficient incandescent bulbs." Well, they're not actually free. The Cambridge Energy Alliance is "sponsored by the City of Cambridge," so I guess that Cambridge taxpayers are footing the bill. The event is part of Bill McKibben's 350.org "global work party" on October 10, 2010, which is a really excellent date because you can write it as "10/10/10."
CFLs use around 30% of the energy of an incandescent bulb, and everyone should switch over, so the argument goes. Even if you agree with Bjorn Lomborg's recent judgment in the Wall Street Journal that "direct carbon cuts [are a] woefully ineffective" means to address global warming, CFLs save you money. Lighting accounts for 10% to 20% of residential electric use, so if your bill is $100 a month, changing every bulb in your house would lead to a savings of as much as $14/month. NSTAR recommends changing 25% of your bulbs, which would amount to a savings of $3.50/month. This assumes you get the bulbs for free; otherwise, you have to subtract the higher cost of the bulbs from your savings. Okay, you will probably spend the $3.50 on a Starbucks mochachino, not a transformative life experience, but why throw away free money?
And yet if CFLs are so great, why does the Cambridge Energy Alliance have to organize volunteers to give them away?
The modern breed of environmentalist tends to have a statist faith in government. Average citizens cannot be trusted with economic decisions that require balancing immediate costs and long-term benefits. Consumers therefore need wise government to mandate the use of CFLs, through legislation like the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 or through taxpayer-funded giveaway programs.
Many people, however, don't like curlicue light bulbs, and not because these people are uninformed, shortsighted, or on the payroll of Big Carbon. The list of objections is long, but here are a few:
* CFL manufacturers claim that a 13-watt CFL emits the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent, but it doesn't seem to work that way in the real world. I've been in CFL-lit hotel rooms where I need a flashlight to read my dog-eared copy of The Road to Serfdom.
* Warm-up time: it takes up to 5 minutes for a CFL to reach full strength, which may be related to the point above (why CFLs seem less bright). My friend has installed them in a hallway where illumination is needed only for the thirty seconds it takes to navigate the staircase. Not ideal when Grandma visits and can't see the skateboard on the stairs.
* Few CFLs last for their advertised lifetimes of five years or more. Many people report replacing them after one year, making those return on investment numbers a bit less rosy. Using them in ceiling fixtures, on dimmers or timers, and for less than fifteen minutes per use reduce their life.