Bright Bulbs, Dim Wits

Kazman Article in April/May Monthly Planet

I recently bought my first energy-saving compact fluorescent bulb.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if every household in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America were to use 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, “widely deployed,” could help Bombay avoid power outages, raise the profits of North Carolina chicken farmers, and increase the disposable income of Haitian families.  And 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.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


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.  The fixture was groovy (yes, a Sixties term, but it had a Sixties look), but it could only accommodate a single 60-watt bulb.  I figured it was better to light one 26-watt fluorescent—advertised as equivalent to a 100-watt regular bulb—than to curse the 60-watt dimness.


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 need to warm up.  Over the years I’ve seen lots of claims about how much money compact fluorescents will save you, but I’ve never seen any mention of some warm-up time:  not in the federal government’s Energy Star Program (“change a light, change the world”), and certainly not in Amory Lovins’s over-the-top paeans.  Only after I actually bought one did I learn about the phenomenon (though, in all fairness, 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 most consumer news stories.  Problems that would merit coverage in any other context are glossed over when they involve “high efficiency” products.


Worse yet, governmental programs that tout or mandate these products get even less scrutiny.  Several years ago, Consumer Reports—which often bucks the above trend—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-priced models, and the Department of Energy relied on the same dirt-sensing technology to mandate high-efficiency clothes washers.


By the way, the higher operating costs of sensor-equipped dishwashers didn’t show up in their federally required energy cost labels.    While Consumer Reports used dirty dishes in its tests, the testing prescribed by the feds, until very recently, utilized clean dishes.  That’s another great story that you didn’t read in your newspaper.


(Of course, yet another story you didn’t read with you morning coffee is the lethal effect of CAFÉ—the federal new-car fuel economy program—on traffic safety.    But since we’ve written about that so many times, we’ll skip that for now).


None of this is to deny that compact fluorescents are incredibly useful in many situations.  But 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 high efficiency bulbs to the small town’s residents.  Despite the fact that over half of the town’s households participated, electricity consumption actually rose by 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, so it shouldn’t surprise us 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 any normal person it’s a blessing—which is why I may get a second compact fluorescent for my kitchen, warm-up period and all.