Reactions to "Ban the Bulb?" (updated)

Yesterday'sarticle today "Ban the Bulb?" resulted in an outpouring of interesting reader mail, which has continued today, including a long response by Duane Truitt, whose initial letter triggered many responses. Accordingly, the thread is being updated and repositioned so that readers may return to it and read the latest entires.
Mr. Truitt wrote:

The article by anonymous author Luminus Maximus attacks what it forecasts as imminent Congressional action to ban the incandescent light bulb, presumably in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs, in a so-called vain attempt to reduce greenhouse gases. 

Now, mark me down as a complete and dedicated skeptic when it comes to the "Great Global Warming Scam".  Nevertheless, it also makes tremendous sense, both economically, environmentally, and (given the never ending turmoil in the Middle East) militarily and politically to reduce unnecessary energy consumption in the USA - just as President Bush says over and over again, and as echoed by just about any other sensible commentator on the subject of reducing America's dependency on Islamist nut cases for our energy supplies.  After all, if we didn't need that oil in the Arabian and Persian deserts, who'd give a fig about any of those people over there, who'd still be driving camels and eating their figs out in the middle of nowhere, instead of launching Intifadas, waging Jihad, and knocking down our cities with airplanes?  Right?

Your anonymous author then sets up an obvious straw man argument, by conflating the need for utilities to support peak power demands with the consumption of energy - two entirely different energy concerns ... and the former really has nothing to do with reducing our dependency on foreign sources of energy nor reducing environmental impacts of energy consumption.  Nobody that I can tell is on a major political campaign to reduce peak loading ... the major concern by far is consumption of energy ... particularly energy generation using hydrocarbon-based fuels such as oil and gas..  Then your anonymous author proceeds to "cry me a river of tears" over the typical lib- MSM meme of the inevitable "disproportionate impact on the poor" to portray how the new bulbs will oppress the innocent and weak masses of America.

Oh come on!  It's not only a silly argument to make on a conservative opinion website, but a simple engineering analysis shows how false it is from a technological basis.
Your anonymous auther pooh poohs the reduction in energy consumption made possible by the new light bulbs, holding out the horror of having to replace 4 billion incandescent bulbs over the course of a 10-year phase in of non-incandescent bulbs ... yet in the same article he/she also admits that 2 billion of the 4 billion incandescent bulbs must be replaced every year anyway, meaning that no matter what, those same 4 billion bulbs are going to be replaced at least two and a half times over the same 10-year phase in period.  Your author also states that the compact fluorescent bulbs cost five times as much as an incandescent bulb, but does not mention that such bulbs also last about 10 to 15 times as long as incandescent bulbs, while using about 1/4 the energy.

So let me get this straight:  if during the same 10-year period all incandescent bulbs were instantaneously replaced by compact fluorescents, the new bulbs would not need to be replaced at all, while the incandescent bulbs would have to be replaced at least twice, while saving 75% of the energy.  On its face, doesn't this trade-off merit at least some consideration?

Let's run through the calculations (I'm an engineer by training):

Assuming the typical electrical energy cost  in the USA of ten cents per kilowatt-hour, a 100 watt bulb costing about $1.50 each (you'd need to buy three bulbs to last the full 10 years - at a total cost of $4.50) at 500 hours usage per year would consume about $5 worth of energy per year, or $50 over 10 years.  The light-equivalent to a 100 watt incandescent - a 23 watt compact fluorescent bulb - costs about $7 but will not need replacement at all during the 10 year period, and will consume less than 1/4 the energy, the juice to run it costing only $1.15 per year at today's prices - saving a total of over $44 in electrical useage  and another $3 in bulb replacement over the same 10 year timeframe.  That's a total of over $47 saved per bulb over 10 years.

If the typical house has roughly 25 incandescent light bulbs, the savings over 10 years for all 25 bulbs comes to $1,181 - and that savings doesn't go to the government, or the power company, the environment, or anybody else ... that's nearly twelve hundred dollars in the pocket of the average consumer.  And the switch also saved during that 10 year timeframe a total of 9,625 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy per household - and the hydrocarbon fuel necessary to deliver that energy - that would otherwise have been consumed.  Multiply that savings in energy by 100 million households, and that comes to nearly a billion kilowat hours of electrical energy conserved.  How can that not be a good thing?  Saving money, reducing fuel consumption, and saving energy?  Not to mention lowering the wear and tear on the electrical generating plants of our nation (yes, it may or may not reduce the peak capacity requirement, but it certainly lowers the amount of work that those plants have to go to in order to supply the needed power for our grid - and that also reduces O&M costs substantially).

Maybe your Mr./Ms. Luminous Maximus simply doesn't like government mandates.  Fair enough, especially on a conservative opinion website (although plenty of conservatives seem to love government mandates when it's in support of their own pet causes, like prohibitions on abortions or drugs, pulling feeding tubes from brain-dead unfortunates, or as regarding certain kinds of sexual behavior ... indeed, except for the true libertarians, who are not really conservatives, it seems that government mandates are only bad if it's your ox that's getting gored, or it's not your pet cause that's getting served ... and I say that as a lifelong Republican and conservative).  If that's the case, just say so and leave it at that.  Because the economic argument against a government-mandated switch to low energy consuming lighting just doesn't wash.

And this doesn't even get into the even more superior alternative of LED lighting ... these bulbs use less than 10% of the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs, generate no heat, cannot be damaged by normal physical shock, and essentially last forever.  And the cost of LED lights will be comparable to the compact fluorescent bulbs.

Duane Truitt
Naples, FL

Steve Angell adds:

“And since the new CFLs produce inferior light compared to incandescent”

The newer CFL’s are Daylight and provide superior light.  You can buy Daylight incandescent light bulbs but most are inferior soft white or worse.  These bulbs have improved greatly in the last few years.  They are instant on last forever and much brighter than older CFL’s that were over rated on brightness.

CFL’s do NOT work on dimmers and most motion sensors.  These will have to be improved.

I switched to them and would never go back to soft white.  The color is so much better and the light seems brighter.

The newest LED lights promise to be even better and will never need to be replaced.  They can not break and have no mercury.

I agree with the rest of the article and feel we should not be forced by the government to use low flow shower heads, toilets now CFL’s.

Rob du Mont of Goose Creek, SC writes:

All good points regarding the stupid law to ban incandescent bulbs.  However, one point I haven't heard mentioned in this light bulb debate is the impact of fluorescent bulbs on people who suffer from vertigo or migraines that are triggered by the flickering of fluorescent bulbs that the rest of us don't notice.  I have a close relative who suffers from Migraine Associated Vertigo (MAV).  Fluorescent lighting is one of many triggers for her debilitating migraine and/or vertigo attacks.  As a result, she doesn't use any fluorescent bulbs in her house and she can't go shopping in stores or eat in restaurants with fluorescent lighting.  Mandating fluorescent lighting for her would be analogous to banning wheel chair ramps for people in wheelchairs.  She is already limited in the places she can go outside her house, and if the Democrats have their way, she won't be able to go in her own home at night unless she buys illegal incandescent bulbs smuggled into the country via the light bulb black market that will surely spring up.  Maybe she and others diagnosed with MAV should sue the Democratic Party for attempting to undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Pete Early writes:

Unfortunately Mr. Truitt misses an excellent opportunity to make the appropriate conservative argument against banning incandescent light bulbs, which is quite simply that it serves to increase bureaucracy, increase regulation of business, and restrict freedoms.  This is more big government telling people what kind of light bulbs they can and cannot have.  These are the salient conservative arguments against banning incandescent bulbs.
John Greer writes:

While Duane Truitt raises legitimate points regarding the economics of CFL's, he does not address the issue of mercury contamination. I just spent 15 minutes calling my local recycling company, the Illinois EPA, and the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County (IL), and learned that while it is not recommended that CFL's simply be thrown in the trash, there are no laws mandating recycling of these bulbs. With all the debate about mercury contamination in our air and water, why shouldn't this be a major issue to be addressed with CFL's? And why isn't the fact that these bulbs contain mercury more widely known?

Dan Scott of Tampa, FL writes:

Umm, where does
Steve Angell buy his CPL lamps?  $7/lamp, what kind of Conservative or Libertarian is he anyway?  I get mine for around $2 each in those blister packs of 6 or 8 at Costco and Sam’s Club.  I will quibble with him on choosing too conservative a runtime of 500 hours a year, it should be more like 1400 hours (4 hrs/day x 365).  BTW- you can buy at a higher price the dimmable version of CPL.  Many homes are just plain over lit, who says you need to use 100 watt equivalent when a 75 watt (18 W CPL) or 60 watt (15 W CPL) equivalent will do?   I’ve been using CPLs for many years and I’m a tight wad when it comes to spending money (also an engineer).  I agree on the issue of mercury contamination but you have to make a trade off somewhere.  Our office buildings are filled with fluorescent tubes that have mercury in them, no one is advocating going to incandescent lamps due to the amount of energy difference.  Disposal is an issue, but that’s what recycling is all about.  I really don’t care for this idea of government should be mandating this or that, it smacks of micromanagement, there are however times in the name of national security that innocuous standards need to be made, however, this isn’t one of those times.  As Steve correctly pointed out, the economics is basically already there for CPLs.  LEDs will come soon enough when the price is right, and it can’t come soon enough as far as I am concerned.  Take your oil and drink it…

Anne Allen of Washington, DC writes:

In stating that "... it also makes tremendous sense, both economically, environmentally, and (given the never ending turmoil in the Middle East) militarily and politically to reduce unnecessary energy consumption in the USA,"   your blogger is quite correct. But his extensive technical explanation of incandescent vs compact fluorescent bulbs is unncecessary. We Americans are wasteful people. We leave lights burning, televisions and radios on; we run clothes and dishwashers through cycles half full; we pull three or four paper towels when one would do the job. You get the point. If we would just turn off unused lights, watch our consumption of disposable products, combine errands, and just use the common sense with which we are all born, we could cut much of our energy use in half overnight. I like incandescent lights; I like the soft color. If compact fluorescent bulbs use one-tenth the energy, I'll use fewer lights. But at my advanced age, I'll be damned if the government (which I own) forbids me to use the product I choose.  I understand that old fashioned conservation, as effective as it is, is boring and leaves the politicians with no specific action to laud as part of their mission to save me from myself. Tyrannical intrusion into my life is more to their liking. A pox on all their houses!

Todd Christian writes:

Sorry, Mr. Truitt - peak power consumption is exactly the point!  It is during peak power consumption that the least efficient, most energy-consuming facilities are required.  These are invariably also those "nasty coal fired" units or other older plants which are less likely to be clean-burning.  Luminus' point that the effect of underutilization of plant during off-peak hours will raise the cost of kwh produced is correct.  The fact that you call it a straw man does not make it one!!  Furthermore, his point about the higher cost of the new bulbs impacting the poor is also true!  Someone living from month to month does not care that he/she will save $47 on the electric bill over 10 years, especially if they don't have the money for the initial investment of the extra $5.50 per bulb for the 25 bulbs in the house!
I have heard enough seminar callers to radio talk shows start their discussion by stating "I am a Republican and a conservative" to know that you can't accept that statement on face value.  A conservative believes that, if the switch to energy-efficient flourescent bulbs is cost-effective, the marketplace will react to the opportunity to save.  No conservative that I know believes that any government - local, state, federal or U.N. - should tell a private citizen what type of light bulbs he must use!

And, by the way, I am also an engineer!

George J Boggs, PhD writes:

Also speaking as an engineer, I agree completely with the economic and spectral analyses of those persons advocating fluorescent “bulbs” and LEDs. In fact, I use them in my home today wherever – and wherever - I can. At this time, however, many lighting fixtures simply do not accommodate fluorescent bulbs (for example, my porch lighting and my ceiling cans/fans) for aesthetic and physical reasons, not to mention the dimming problem. I note that none of the economic analyses account for replacing fixtures and the sunk cost of the existing dimmer base. The advocacy analyses presented so far are depressingly narrow and certainly not worthy of even a C in my classes. But I’m sure that, along with wind and solar power, all this will be taken care of by unspecified design engineers in unspecified places at an unspecified time in the misty future. However, should the “ban” go into effect prior to these new technological wonders, I am fortunately in an economic position to travel to Canada and/or Mexico and buy the incandescent bulbs I need to light my home during the usual off-peak hours. I like the beach anyway.

Matt Taylor of Seattle, WA writes:

Being an engineer, Duane Truitt should have done a more a bit more analysis. Taking his 9625 kwh saved over 10 years need to be looked at relative to the total that is already consumed by each man, woman and child. Currently the US consumes 3.6T kwh/year. For a family of four, this means they are really on the hook for 48,000 kwh/year. Over ten years, that's 480,000 kwh. So, the CFL savings is quite modest, 9625/480,000=2%. That's right, this CFL push will save 2%. I'll bet many thought it much more.

Our energy needs grow at around 5% per year. This means this government mandate, with all the re-tooling and paperwork and recycling that will have to be put in place, merely delays the inevitable by about 5 months. In January of 2012, if everyone switched to CFL, we'd see a 2% drop. And then by May of that year, the savings would have been erased by an LCD TV. And we'll still end the year in December consuming 3% more than we did at the beginning of the year. And we'll still finish the following year, 2013, at 8% higher than 2012!

And this is where we need to ask the government to try harder. If legislation is required for a 2% change, and this is really the first one that will impact the consumer directly, then we can expect dozens more coming down the pike that will deliver a lot less bang for the buck.

If we believe this really is a problem, fixing is going to hurt. It won't hurt a little, it will hurt more than you can ever imagine. A homeowner needs to consume 1/10th (90% reduction) of what they are consuming today to make a dent in their per-capita consumption. Businesses will need to consume 1/4 of what they are consuming today to make a dent in their per-capita consumption.

Fiddling around with 2% reductions is merely fooling ourselves. Some like to ask "But doesn't every little bit help?" Well, if you believe bailing out New Orleans with a coffee mug is better than nothing, then please be my guest. But dont' require everyone to participate.

Duane Truitt of Naples, FL responds

I would like to respond to some of the other rather thoughtful letter writers concerning the subject of "Ban the Bulb".  The other writers raise a number of valid concerns, such as worry over the mercury in discarded CFL bulbs, the need to simply conserve energy through willful choices that we make every day, and the concern that the cost of CFLs may well seem prohibitive to the poorest of our nation.  And certainly many conservatives don't like government mandates, period.  Let's examine each of these valid points of concern:

A general comment - any government ban on incandescent bulbs is not going to be instantaneous, and is likely to involve, as Luminous Maximus suggests, some form of extended phase-out, perhaps over ten years.  Any impacts or benefits involved thus would not be triggered on a full, instantaneous basis, but rather would occur over such a period that is not likely to cause any massive disruptions in anybody's lifestyle or pocket book.  Yet, if the government does not take a hand in the process, the phase-in is likely to take far longer than 10 years ... more  likely decades ... to produce the benefits that, frankly, are needed sooner rather than later.
Mercury - any reasonable Federal legislation should have provisions that encourage or require States and local governments to provide effective recycling systems for all fluorescent bulbs (which already account for the marjority of the commercial and industrial lighting fixtures in use today) - not just CFLs.  This is not a particularly difficult proposition, as most urban communities today already recycle various other types of waste, including paper, plastics, metals, and even electronics.  With an extended phase-in period and appropriate government systems and infrastructure provided, mercury contamination should present no signficant challenge to implementing a switchover to CFLs.

Conversion costs to the poor - Firstly, as stated above, the government is not going to mandate an instantaneous switchover to CFLs (or LEDs).  Therefore the conversion cost will be spread out over an extended period.  Second, there are already all manner of government support programs, including those addressing the energy bills of low income customers, that benefit the poor now ... adding support or a subsidy for the purchase of CFLs would simply be more of the same.  Thirdly, the utility companies themselves already provide all manner of residential and commercial subsidies for the adoption of energy saving appliances and devices, because the utilities have a vested commercial interest in conserving energy and reducing the prohibitive costs of building new power plants and purchasing hydrocarbon fuels in a volatile world energy market ... again, adding CFL subsidies to the mix of subsidies is simply doing more of the same.  I submit, no family is going to go hungry or fail to put shoes on their kids' feet because of a switchover to CFLs or LEDs.

Conservation habits - of course, Americans should develop a better conservation ethic, and I would venture to say that a lot of Americans over the last generation definitely already have done so to some extent.  While it is a nice thought that this would provide "enough" conservation, frankly the biggest achievements in energy conservation (and pollution avoidance) historically have come in the form of Federal and State government mandates.  Who really believes that the fuel economy of the nation's automobiles would have improved anywhere near as much over the last 30 years without the hated (by conservatives) CAFE standards?  We can debate the merits and costs of CAFE forever, but I don't believe that anyone can deny that CAFE has resulted in a large reduction in American gasoline consumption per mile driven since their introduction.  We'd certainly do even better if people drove fewer miles.  Perhaps over time that will be the case, as our newer urban and suburban development models change to promote mixed use development, with more walkable/bikeable cities and towns, and of course as the effects of internet technology continue to reduce the need for many people to even need to physically commute to work.  A reasonable person will concede that it often requires a combination of limited government mandates and collective individual choices to produce significant societal and economic change.

Government mandates - this is the stickiest one to address in an audience of conservatives (like me) ... several of the letter writers simply object to the government telling them what kind of light bulb they can buy.  That is an understandable concern, but at the same time, let's be both conservative and realistic.  American government at all levels already mandates all manner of products that you and I are allowed to buy, and I don't see us conservatives climbing the ramparts and laying down our lives to object to most such mandates that already exist.


Well, the car or light truck or SUV that you drive has imposed upon its design and manufacture all manner of government mandates, such as those affecting its fuel economy (CAFE standards) and safety features (i.e., seat belts, air bags, crash test performance standards, noise abatement, advance recycling fees on lead acid batteries and tires, etc. etc.).  Without the aforementioned and unappreciated "government mandates", the air in our major cities today would likely be nearly unbreathable (I certainly remember what it was like in Los Angeles and Denver 35 years ago - the air was brown and it stank, and it had to be hurting the health of the average inhabitant), and the average automobile would probably get around 12 to 14 mpg.  Similarly, without the government auto safety mandates, the annual death toll on our highways today would undoubtedly be several multiples of the roughly 40,000 people who die violently every year now.

I suppose a few conservatives railed a generation ago over the government's ban of leaded gasoline, and the ban of leaded paint in our homes, both of which eliminated consumer choices ... but who would seriously object now?

Speaking of our homes, another widespread form of government mandate that we're all affected by (but most people never think about) is the local building and development codes, which assuredly take away many freedoms of consumer choice.  Yes, one might reasonably object to the Federal mandate in the 1990s for the use of low flow toilets, but come on, every other aspect of plumbing, electrical, and structural design and construction was already heavily regulated by State and local building codes for decades before that.  As long as any of us have been alive, the government has been ordering homes to connect to sewer systems at much greater cost to consumers than any switch to CFL lighting would ever impose, not to mention the bans on lead water pipes and paint, asbestos floor tile and pipe insulation, and so on and so on ... such requirements have been imposed upon us all, rich, middle class, and poor alike.  Because of government mandates, you can't erect a trailer house in most urban or suburban neighborhoods made up of stick-built homes.  That certainly "costs" someone who might otherwise want to buy a cheap home many tens or hundreds of thousands or dollars.  Yet, if you're the next door neighbor living in a nice house, you'd definitely be up on the ramparts if your neighbor tried to build a shack next door that would trash your property value.  Without government mandates, you'd be powerless to prevent that.

The government already mandates mortgage lending and commercial lending rules, and heavily regulates banks, which all of us depend upon to operate our individual and collective financial systems.  Our agricultural and food production and distribution systems have been heavily regulated by the government since the muckraker days of the early twentieth century.  Most of us never think about it at all, yet food safety is a government mandate that we all demand.

The fact is - like it or not - we are already awash in a sea of government mandates that limit our choices as consumers.  In most instances, those mandates are never noticed, and are simply taken for granted, and the ultimate effects of such mandates - if such are ever even considered at all - are or would be appreciated by most of us, conservatives and liberals and libertarians alike.

I think most conservatives would agree that the type of government mandate that would not be justified would be one that actively attempts to mandate a given lifestyle.  Such as if the Congress passed a law telling us we all have to turn out the lights and go to bed at 9 pm.  Or, if Congress passed a law telling us that we are only allowed to own or build a house of no more than 2,000 square feet, because anything larger is "wasteful" (apparently we don't have to worry about Al Gore proposing any such legislation any time soon!).

We are long past the time in American culture and government to be using generalized objections to government mandates as a reason not to do something that is of collective public concern.  It's not a question of whether government mandates are or should be used.  It's a question of which mandates are justified and which mandates are not.  That kind of consideration requires individual and collective political value judgment ... and that is one of the reasons why elections matter.

Robert Williams writes:

Florescent bulbs have their place, but so do the old incandescents.  For example, operating certain machines, such as lathes, at certain speeds under florescent lights sets up a dangerous stroboscopic effect.  Using the old bulbs at the same time eliminates this.  In any case, the government has no business in the light bulb business.  Capitalism and the free market should be left to resolve the whole issue.

Wade Russell of Gulf Shores, AL writes:

Mr. Truitt,

In your original post you extolled the virtues of "conservation" and wrote

"After all, if we didn't need that oil in the Arabian and Persian deserts, who'd give a fig about any of those people over there, who'd still be driving camels and eating their figs out in the middle of nowhere, instead of launching Intifadas, waging Jihad, and knocking down our cities with airplanes?  Right? "

Why do you and so many others insist that the way to "reduce our dependence on foreign oil" is through conservation?  Conserving will only reduce consumption by a fraction and that fraction is quickly overtaken by growth.  There are valid reasons for conserving, reducing importation of foreign oil is not one of them.  If this country was serious about defunding terrorists we would tap ANWR, coastal California and Florida and develop a refining process for our Oil-Sands.  The pittance we will save using CFL's will not put a dent in the Mullah's pocket book.
Jack Link of Belmont, MA writes:
Mr Truitt wrote:
"We are long past the time in American culture and government to be using generalized objections to government mandates as a reason not to do something that is of collective public concern.  It's not a question of whether government mandates are or should be used.  It's a question of which mandates are justified and which mandates are not.  That kind of consideration requires individual and collective political value judgment ... and that is one of the reasons why elections matter."
Sorry, but "individual and collective political value judgement" regarding hideously complex issues like climate change, imposed with severe economic consequences on the entire country, are just what we don't need.  Just the other day the Supreme Court ridiculously ruled that CO2 is an air pollutant, declaring global warming due to increased CO2 concentrations to be a settled matter.  That's an unsupported <scientific> value judgment of the worst kind, the kind with the force of law, coming from unelected officials with zero scientific credentials.   Decrees, ukases, rulings and laws made by small numbers of scientific illiterates, elected are not, reduce our form of government to an idiocracy.  Far better the collective wisdom of millions, aka "the market" to decide such matters.
Others have pointed out the futility of attempting to decrease our reliance on foreign oil through conservation. But it is also telling that Mr. Truitt doesn't address "the numbers" showing that even if the US achieved ZERO CO2 emissions, the net effect on global CO2 concentrations from man-made sources would fall from 4% to 3%.  No one has shown such a drastic (and impossible) decrease would yield a discernible impact on global temperatures, because no one can accurately model the chaotic, non-linear, multi-factorial system that is our atmosphere. So, if no one would ever know if small decreases in energy consumption would have any effect, as Groundskeeper Willie of The Simpsons would put it:  "Wot's the Yuuuuuuuuuuuse???" 
Many have pointed out that downsizing the American economy would sentence Third World millions who currently supply goods and raw materials to the US  to misery and early death.  Already Mexicans are rioting over skyrocketing prices for corn, which US farmers are now diverting to conversion to ethanol, at heavily subsidized prices.   Just how many enlightened policies, based on "individual and collective political value judgment",  will we have to adopt before we notice their unintended consequences?