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I recently bought my first energy-saving compact fluorescent bulb. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, if every household in America used one of these to replace an incandescent bulb, we’d reduce pollution by the equivalent of one million fewer cars.
According to Amory Lovins, the soft-energy guru of the Rocky Mountain Institute, such bulbs could help Bombay avoid power outages, raise the profits of North Carolina chicken farmers, and increase the disposable income of Haitian families. If that’s not enough, they’re “also the key to affordable solar power that lets girls learn to read, advancing the role of women and reducing population pressure.”
That’s a pretty strong pitch, but that’s not why I bought the bulb. I got it because my teenage daughter had purchased a new ceiling fixture for her bedroom. However, it could only accommodate a single 60-watt bulb — a bit on the dim side for a bedroom. I figured it was better to light one 26-watt fluorescent (advertised as equivalent to a 100-watt regular bulb) than to curse the darkness.
The bulb, however, wasn’t quite what I expected. When I first turned it on, it was pretty dim. I figured I’d bought a dud, until I realized that it needed a few minutes to warm up.
Incandescent bulbs don’t have warm-up times; they light up instantaneously. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of claims about how much money you can save with compact fluorescents, but I’ve never seen any mention of their having this down side — not in the federal government’s Energy Star Program and certainly not in Lovins’ over-the-top paeans. Only after I actually bought one did I learn about the phenomenon (though, it was mentioned in the fine print on the back of the bulb’s package).
This was a trifling irritation, but it does suggest how energy efficiency tends to get a free pass in consumer news stories. Problems that would merit coverage in any other context are glossed over when they involve products that will allegedly save energy.
Worse yet, government programs that tout or mandate these products get even less scrutiny. Several years ago, Consumer Reports found that high-efficiency dishwashers, which had special dirt sensors to supposedly reduce hot water use, were actually less efficient than lower-priced conventional models. Meanwhile, the government’s Energy Star program touted the high-tech models, claiming that you could recover the higher purchase through your lower utility bills. And the Department of Energy relied on the same dirt-sensing technology to require high-efficiency clothes washers.
Consumers, I suspect, went through the wringers in both of those regulatory cycles. There’s something wrong when an energy-saving technology is supposedly so good that we need a law to make us buy it. Government-required energy labels supposedly allow us to compare the operating costs, but those have turned out to be woefully off the mark, and not just in the case of cars. The higher operating costs of the sensor-equipped dishwashers, for example, didn’t show up in the labels because, until recently, the federally prescribed test procedures involved clean dishes.
But back to the light in my daughter’s bedroom. I don’t deny that compact fluorescents are incredibly useful in many situations. However, the notion that they will significantly reduce our overall energy consumption is questionable.
Back in 1987, the municipal utility of Traer, Iowa, launched the Great Light Bulb Exchange, distributing 18,000 energy-saving bulbs to the small town’s residents. Despite the fact that more than half of its households participated, electricity consumption rose 8 percent.
This result isn’t all that inexplicable. Advances in efficiency make energy less expensive per unit of output. Compact fluorescents give us cheaper lumens, and so it shouldn’t be such a surprise if we end up burning more lights than we did before.
Nor is it bad. Politicians may see cheap energy as a problem, but to most of us it’s a blessing. Which is why I may get a second compact fluorescent for my kitchen.