The CFL Debacle

The compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is another example of the damage done when bureaucrats in government and Congress dictate a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

What were the reasons for outlawing incandescent bulbs?

First, there was the non-problem of global warming. The mantra was, cut energy use and thereby cut CO2 emissions. This is the same reasoning used in the EPA’s war against coal, and subsidies for cars, ethanol, wind and solar.

Another professed reason, and the one given the most publicity, was that CFLs would cut our use of oil. The only problem with that reasoning is that only 1% of our electricity is generated using oil, so CFLs would have virtually no effect on cutting our use of oil.

Then there was the convoluted reasoning that CFLs, by cutting energy use, would cut the need to make new investments in generating capacity. The problem with that reasoning is that investment in new generating capacity is dictated by the need to provide electricity during periods of peak usage.

Peaks usually occur during the summer because of air conditioning, and these peaks occur during the afternoon. Lights aren’t turned on until late in the evening during the summer, after the loads have fallen substantially from the afternoon peak, so the lighting load doesn’t create a peak. In the winter, when lighting loads occur earlier in the evening, the peak they may create, along with the load from cooking and heating, is normally below the summer peak. It is the summer peak that typically dictates when new generating capacity is needed – not lighting, and not the banning of incandescent bulbs.

The need to ban incandescent bulbs was bogus.

What are the facts about CFLs?

CFLs use about 75% less electricity than incandescent bulbs. The exact amount depends on whether the bulb is rated as 100 watts, 60 watts or 40 watts. For example a 100 watt CFL uses 23 watts of electricity.

The CFL costs more than an incandescent bulb. A 100 watt CFL cost about $1.40 more than an incandescent A19 bulb, the type used in table or floor lamps. The cost differential for overhead R40 or R30 lamps, used in ceilings, is about $4.30.

The CFL replacing the A19 bulb will save money, but how much it saves depends on how long the CFL is used each day. If a CFL is used for three hours each day, it will recover the added cost in about two months. From this perspective it would make sense to replace the A19 incandescent bulb with a CFL, assuming the CFL is used for three or more hours each day, year round.

But if the CFL is used for much shorter periods of time, such as in a closet where it might be used 5 or 10 minutes each day, it would take around five years to recover the extra cost. This is most likely a bad investment.

The story is worse for overhead R40 and R30 flood lamps. A CFL used in this application for 3 hours per day would take 6 months to recover the increased cost. If used for 10 minutes a day, it would require 9 years to recover the increased cost.

It’s important to know that a CFL cannot be used for dimming, unless specifically designed for such use. Using an ordinary CFL in a dimming circuit can cause a fire.

Many fires have been reportedly caused by CFLs, though they may have been from using CFLs that weren’t designed for dimming. CFLs designed for dimming cost more, so it takes longer to recover the added cost.

It’s not always evident on the package whether a CFL has been designed for use in a dimming application. To make matters worse, it may be necessary to change the dimming switch when CFL’s are used for dimming. In other words, it may be necessary to hire an electrician to change a light bulb.

There is also the threat from mercury. While only a small amount of mercury is used in a CFL, the EPA considers the disposal of a CFL to be critically important. They contend that the build-up of mercury in landfills poses a threat to the public. Some states have mandated that manufacturers establish locations where CFLs can be disposed of properly. Any cost associated with disposal of CFLs is ultimately borne by the consumer, as the costs are passed along to customers in higher prices for other products or services.

There is also the question of cleaning an area after a CFL is broken.

According to the EPA, CFLs are a dangerous product, so why did the government essentially mandate their use by establishing requirements for energy efficiency not met by incandescent bulbs?

What’s really galling is that the bureaucrats in government, including many of our elected officials, didn’t trust the American people to make good choices about the type of bulb to buy. They had to pass a law dictating what Americans could and couldn’t do.


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0 Replies to “The CFL Debacle”

  1. The government mandate to phase out the use of incandescant light bulbs is part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Also in that act is a mandate to use 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. This act needs to be rescinded.

    Does anyone know of a government mandate that produced a positive event?

    James Rust

  2. Thanks.
    I was very conservative with respect to the cost of renewables, in this case wind and solar.
    The increased cost of electricity for Illinois consumers is likely to be significantly higher than $1.4 billion.

  3. If you like to do something for the planet and adapt a green lifestyle. Then this may be the right time to start thinking about using renewable energy for your home.Conventional energy sources such as petroleum and gas are said to have been dwindling significantly and has the possibility of running out completely in the future, We all know that carbon dioxide emission of fossil fuels is the number one contributor of greenhouse gases that traps heat in the atmosphere, thus, causing global warming.

    • See the article posted today, Forget Peak Oil. There are huge supplies of fossil fuels and there is no threat of running out of oil, natural gas or coal for at least 100 years.
      Science is showing that CO2 isn’t a threat, so there is no reason to change to renewables to cut CO2 emissions.

  4. CFLs are a better solution, both economically and environmentally, than incandescent bulbs, which ultimately result in greater mercury exposure than CFLs. While incandescents do not contain mercury, they still contribute to its release into the environment. Because burning coal to generate electricity releases mercury into the air and incandescent bulbs use more electricity over their lifetimes, they are responsible for more energy consumption and ultimately more mercury emissions than CFLs. In comparison to their incandescent counterparts, CFLs emit approximately the same amount of visible light and last 8 to 15 times as long. With a proven packaging configuration and proper disposal, CFLs can be used effectively without releasing harmful mercury vapor.

    While a variety of containers are marketed for transportation of fluorescent lamps and CFLs, many don’t provide sufficient protection against mercury vapor emitted from broken lamps. Consumers should properly dispose of these lamps if broken or burned out. If a lamp burns out, consumers can learn how to safely package CFLs here: If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures here:

  5. See my article of May 24 for discussion of mercury.
    The fact remains that CFL’s (each containing 4 mg of mercury) are uneconomic unless they are used three hours per day.
    Worldwide emissions of mercury are 9100 tons per year, mostly from natural sources. Mercury emissions from US coal-fired power plants is 41 tons per year.
    When the 4 billion light sockets are filled with CFL’s they contain 18 tons of mercury.
    Given the huge number of fluorescent lamps used in stores, offices and factories for the last fifty or more years, where each lamp contain 50 mg of mercury, significant amounts of mercury from fluorescent lamps have already been disposed of in landfills or elsewhere.
    Adding the cost of disposal of CFL’s makes them even more uneconomic.

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