Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Proceed with Caution

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.
  • CFLs contain mercury and should be returned to a hazardous waste center for disposal. Studies assume a 25% recycling rate, with the rest going into landfills. (The Westinghouse website recommends recycling only when disposing of "a large quantity" of fluorescent tubes and doesn't mention how to dispose of their CFLs.) According to a 2008 Yale study, burning coal to supply electricity to incandescent bulbs emits more mercury per bulb than a CFL contains, but regions that rely on cleaner fuels like natural gas experience greater mercury contamination with the introduction of CFLs. Why would environmentalists advocate to bring a toxic product into every home?
  • Cleaning up a broken CFL doesn't require a haz-mat team, but you have to take significant precautions to avoid mercury contamination of living areas.
  • Manufacturing CFLs is labor-intensive. No CFLs are made with expensive U.S. labor; most are made in China, where hundreds of factory workers in CFL plants have been hospitalized for mercury poisoning. The last major light bulb factory in the U.S., a GE plant in Winchester, VA, closed earlier this month.
  • CFLs require six times as much energy to manufacture as incandescent bulbs, not to mention -- if you're concerned about such things -- the carbon footprint of shipping them from China.
  • CFLs appear to cause migraines and epileptic seizures in a small number of people. Other health risks are being studied.
  • CFLs work poorly in cold temperatures -- as a wintertime front porch light, for example. In cold climates, the heat of incandescent bulbs is a useful -- if inefficient -- byproduct.
  • CFLs degrade the quality of the electric current (so-called "dirty electricity" with uneven sine waves) on a circuit into which they are plugged, causing problems for other electronic devices and possible health hazards to humans.

Given all these potential drawbacks, it seems questionable to place all our chips on this one solution to more efficient lighting. A new generation of more efficient incandescent bulbs is on the horizon, and LED bulbs show great promise. CFLs make sense for some applications, but at best they will be a transitional product. 

The precautionary principle "states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action." The compact fluorescent light bulb is a rare case where this principle makes sense.
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.
  • CFLs contain mercury and should be returned to a hazardous waste center for disposal. Studies assume a 25% recycling rate, with the rest going into landfills. (The Westinghouse website recommends recycling only when disposing of "a large quantity" of fluorescent tubes and doesn't mention how to dispose of their CFLs.) According to a 2008 Yale study, burning coal to supply electricity to incandescent bulbs emits more mercury per bulb than a CFL contains, but regions that rely on cleaner fuels like natural gas experience greater mercury contamination with the introduction of CFLs. Why would environmentalists advocate to bring a toxic product into every home?
  • Cleaning up a broken CFL doesn't require a haz-mat team, but you have to take significant precautions to avoid mercury contamination of living areas.
  • Manufacturing CFLs is labor-intensive. No CFLs are made with expensive U.S. labor; most are made in China, where hundreds of factory workers in CFL plants have been hospitalized for mercury poisoning. The last major light bulb factory in the U.S., a GE plant in Winchester, VA, closed earlier this month.
  • CFLs require six times as much energy to manufacture as incandescent bulbs, not to mention -- if you're concerned about such things -- the carbon footprint of shipping them from China.
  • CFLs appear to cause migraines and epileptic seizures in a small number of people. Other health risks are being studied.
  • CFLs work poorly in cold temperatures -- as a wintertime front porch light, for example. In cold climates, the heat of incandescent bulbs is a useful -- if inefficient -- byproduct.
  • CFLs degrade the quality of the electric current (so-called "dirty electricity" with uneven sine waves) on a circuit into which they are plugged, causing problems for other electronic devices and possible health hazards to humans.

Given all these potential drawbacks, it seems questionable to place all our chips on this one solution to more efficient lighting. A new generation of more efficient incandescent bulbs is on the horizon, and LED bulbs show great promise. CFLs make sense for some applications, but at best they will be a transitional product. 

The precautionary principle "states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action." The compact fluorescent light bulb is a rare case where this principle makes sense.

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