Welcoming our new efficiency overlords


The so-called incandescent light bulb ban (not actually a ban) included as part of the recent energy bill has prompted a low-level but consistent set of complaints that deserve further consideration, because they betray a fair amount of confusion about the which policy tools to break out for which issues.

On the right, the reaction to the new lighting efficiency standard has ranged from hysterical whining to hysterical snark. But even on the left, it’s fairly common to run across the high-minded opinion that finicky legislation like the lighting efficiency standard only wastes time and stirs up needless recrimination. Instead we should set a price on carbon, and let the market sort out the rest.

It’s an excellent theory, one that I subscribe to under most circumstances, but sometimes command and control really is just the thing. The math on light bulbs is pretty easy to run. Follow along if you’re interested, or just skip the next two paragraphs.

Let’s assume that carbon costs $7 per ton. This isn’t an arbitrary figure — it’s the price cap baked into the carbon legislation coming online soon in the northeastern states. Assume normal usage patterns (100 watt bulb, four hours per day) and average carbon intensity for the electrical grid (1.34 lbs CO2 per kilowatt hour). Such a carbon tax would impose a surcharge of $0.45 per bulb per year.

Let’s increase the carbon tax to $80 per ton, bearing in mind that even if we were to enact the Obama plan tomorrow, it will be many years before carbon reaches this price. In this scenario the carbon surcharge is $5 per bulb per year. As a percentage increase on the cost of ownership for a light bulb, $5 is actually quite high. But it’s still nowhere near the direct annual electricity costs to power a light bulb. And it’s still only $5.

That’s the problem. Information costs for consumers standing in a supermarket aisle trying to get their shopping done swamp the possible savings. Such information costs are certainly higher than $0.45, and possibly higher than $5. Yes, eventually the invisible hand will do its thing. But if we want to quickly achieve the massive efficiency gains that are technologically possible today, the most straightforward path is an efficiency standard, plain and simple.

And we do want to achieve those gains quickly. The benefits are quite large, and they go beyond the immediate, direct carbon reductions. It’s easy to get so caught up counting pounds of CO2 that we lose sight of the bigger picture of transforming our energy infrastructure. If you build a coal plant today, be prepared to look at that plant for the next fifty or more years. Efficiency standards can complement carbon pricing nicely, because they help to relieve the pressure on our infrastructure now while we put into place the legislative and technological solutions needed for the longer term.

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  1. Anonymous - February 13, 2008

    If we ban incandescent lightbulbs for inefficiency, we must also ban Hummers, cigarettes and old people in general because they use too many resources.
    Also note that a CFL will not screw in to every light fixture and consider the massive amount of dimmers that would have to be replaced and fixtures that would become obsolete.
    CFLs give off an absolutely putrid colors. But is quality of beauty important? Come to think of it, WINDOWS waste a lot of energy too and I think they should be ban and existing windows be plyboarded over. We would save tremendous electricity from coal-fired plants if we had no windows.
    With all the money we saved, $200 billion?, we could invade another Islamic nation for their natural resources. Watch out Pella, you’re next!

  2. Wendy - February 13, 2008

    My husband swears that florescents require an enormous jolt of electricity to warm up, so for hall, pantry, or closet lights that are turned on for only a minute and then off for hours an incandescent bulb is more efficient use of electricity. He also feels that CFLs that are on should be left on if someone is likely to turn them back on in the next 30 to 60 minutes. Does anyone have real data on this? We’re using about 60% CFLs now and I have found a wide variety of bulb sizes and color ranges at 1000bulbs.com , but with shipping they are not cheap.

  3. Bob - February 13, 2008

    I have seen the numbers about starting up cfls and it takes less than a second of energy to start one up. So if you leave a room for even a minute you will save energy by turning off the light. I have heard the same argument about turning off your car and it is similar. It only takes a couple of seconds worth energy to start your car. Also many building stores now carry large selections of cfls.

  4. Phoenix Woman - February 13, 2008

    Another thing to consider: Incandescents are made in the US by union labor, whereas CFLs are made – you guessed it! – in China and contain mercury.
    LEDs, on the other hand, are even more efficient and don’t contain mercury, but again most of those are made in China, probably by people living and working in pretty crummy conditions.

  5. Kevin LeGrand - February 13, 2008

    CFLs have mercury.

  6. Chris Corrao - February 13, 2008

    I also agree with the anonymous comment that CFL’s give off horrible colors and have downsides as well (such as trace amounts of Mercury which leads to disposal problems). However they are one of the easiest ways to begin to confront global warming and reducing energy consumption. It is the low hanging fruit that we must go for first.
    Also a ban on incandescent bulbs will boost to the amount of R & D that goes into designing more pleasant, efficient bulbs (which may be possible with LED’s). There really is no motivation for light bulb companies right now to invest in new technologies and a ban or other legislation will provide a much needed incentive.
    And in response to the comments on banning Hummers and windows (and old people) – well actually, I would support a ban on rediculously inneficient vehicles like hummers for general transporation – and inneficient windows. Now old people, they use less resources that almost any other group.

  7. Anonymous - February 13, 2008

    regarding mercury: true CF contain minute amounts of mercury. if recycled properly,which they should be, this is not a problem. also, considering the fact that most electricity comes from burning coal, which releases lots of mercury into the atmosphere, using incandescent puts more mercury into our environment than using CF’s, even if you didn’t recycle them.

  8. michael - February 15, 2008

    How do these bulbs stack up when compared with all ‘other’ carbon based devices/activities?
    I get a little squirmy when I read about folks picking on light bulbs when in reality, our activities should be questioned. Anyone watch 6 Degrees? A hamburger, according to this program, has quite a large carbon footprint…

  9. Greg - February 15, 2008

    You mention two alternatives:
    1) Ban incandescents.
    2) Charge carbon tax on electricity usage and hence the market will effectively reduce incandescent use.
    The argument against #2 is effectively: The carbon fee cost is hidden on the store shelf, so it will be less effective. This is similar to the hidden cost of a cheap inkjet.
    How about:
    3) Add the approximate lifetime carbon tax directly to the cost of the incandescent lightbulb.
    #3 means that the consumer sees the cost upfront at the store, the tax which can pay for renewable energy goes into effect immediately instead of over X years, the consumer still is left with choice if there are non-financial motivations for preferring incandescents.

  10. Adam Stein - February 15, 2008

    Greg —
    Yes, some form of feebate system could achieve roughly similar results in ways that improve economic efficiency. There is some transactional overhead to such a system — someone actually has to monitor and collect this revenue — so I’m not sure how it nets out. Probably more importantly, I suspect congress’ allergy to any form of overt taxation makes feebates a hard sell.

  11. Aaron A. - February 15, 2008

    Michael (#8) said:
    Anyone watch 6 Degrees? A hamburger, according to this program, has quite a large carbon footprint

  12. Les Brinsfield - February 16, 2008

    Let me see.
    $200 billion in savings divided by 300 million Americans equals $666 savings per person. That has to exceed total cost per person for light bulbs. Unless we can save more than 100% of cost, we need new number crunchers.

  13. Adam Stein - February 16, 2008

    Les —
    I don’t know where that $200b figure came from, so I’m not defending it per se, but you’re neglecting the fact that most of the cost of ownership of a lightbulb is electricity to power it. Add up all the money you spend on electricity and divide it by the percentage of that electricity that goes to lighting, and I’m guessing that the number you’d come up with is actually pretty high.

  14. Anonymous - February 17, 2008

    Although CFLs do contain mercury, recycling is not hard. When in an argument over which bulbs to buy, I did a google search and found two places to recycle them within a five minute bike ride.
    Also, in response to the colors, there is a company called “happylight” with special CFLs to treat seasonal depression and reduce eyestrain. I’ve only bought one of their products, though, so I can’t comment much on them. Personally, I prefer using a small lamp bounced against a colored wall anyway, so it doesn’t much matter to me.
    With regards to the comment on windows, I do believe that the most efficient source of light and heat is the Sun, and the most efficient night-time cooling system the wind, so I think that, as far as energy is concerned, an energy efficient window is a pretty good buy.

  15. michael - February 18, 2008

    Wow, some big numbers. Thankfully I eat a burger but once or twice a year.
    At a fundamental level, where we live and work, and, the structure of our towns and cities foster waste. I do not mean to diminish any effort, light bulbs for example, but our unwhitting activities with regard to the above, and, a huge government make radical change impossible. By the time the general population and government accept the depth of our trouble, then attempt to determine solutions that (require certification), humanity may well become a memory…

  16. Bonnie - June 18, 2008

    Why do we have to buy them from China? Because China is the only place making them. We REALLY want to trust anything coming in from China don’t we? Why can’t they be made in the U.S.? Proper recycling? Hah! I asked my cousin’s wife how she disposed of her used CFL’s and she said she tossed them in the trash. That is where the majority of them will end up rest assured. For every 10 people who recycle them properly there will be 1000, maybe 10,000 who won’t. Just like batteries.
    What … are there going to be CFL recycling police? I think not. Yes most people don’t go around breaking them. However for people that have active children and pets breakage happens. Haven’t you ever watched America’s Funniest Home Videos? How many episodes have they shown with people accidently breaking light bulbs? Even somebody popping a Champaigne cork? I’m sure most people aren’t going to have the recommended glass jar with a metal lid on it on hand to properly scoop everything, place it in the jar and and take to the center. No. Most likely it will just end up in the trash along with the batteries and all of the other things we are supposed to be recycling. And… what about people who use solar energy in their homes and don’t rely on the electric company for their use? They HAVE to use the CFL’s too?
    Smacks of Communism to me.

  17. Adam Stein - June 18, 2008

    I wonder: once all the communism-trolls grow old and are replaced by younger trolls who never knew communism, what will be the new brainless criticism? Unfortunately, I think I already know the answer…

  18. Anonymous - April 5, 2009

    Our son is autistic and the fluorescent lighting strobe effect is visible to him and negatively impacts him. We are concerned about him having seizures with the increasing use of these lights, which also negatively impacts his depression.
    What about the affect of using all of these fluorescent lights? They are also made of huge amounts of fluoride,(along with small amounts of mercury) a nasty biproduct that no one on the eco-trian seems to acknowledge.