Monday, January 6, 2014

The Not-So-Bright Idea of Banning Incandescent Lightbulbs

A few days ago, it was lights out for incandescent lightbulbs in this country. Per §321 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, incandescent lightbulbs have been phased out in favor of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) through EPA standards, thereby making incandescent lightbulbs de facto illegal. Eliminating incandescent lightbulbs in the name of consumer savings, energy efficiency and decreased carbon emissions, however, is going to come with unintended consequences.

One of the selling points of the ban is the cost of the lightbulb. Interestingly enough, in comparison to incandescent lightbulbs, CFLs come with a higher purchasing cost. (There is also the option of LED lighting, but given their relatively high cost, my analysis will only compare incandescents to CFLs). The counterargument to this is that the operating costs over time, the CFLs pay off because they last longer and use less energy. The typical incandescent lightbulb lasts 1,000 hours, whereas manufactures claim that the CFL's lifespan can be up to 15,000 hours. In spite of these efficiency claims, there are those who believe that CFLs do not provide the energy efficiency that is promised. Since it can take time for the CFL to reach full brightness, the CFL loses efficiency with lightbulbs used briefly (e.g., motion detectors, bathroom and closet light fixtures), which is to say that if the lightbulb is only on briefly or turned on and off throughout the day, the efficiency is diminished (Mackinac Center for Public Policy). For areas that do not use lightbulbs all that frequently (e.g., closets, attics), the cost savings of CFLs do not apply or make sense. Furthermore, since CFLs emit less heat, it is more efficient to use CFLs in the summer and incandescents in the winter (ibid). On a side note, CFLs contain rare earth metals, and since rare earth metals will be more scarce over time, so too will the price of CFLs [and LEDs] increase over time.

Let me shed some light on certain transition costs, one of them being that CFLs often do not fix current light fixtures or dimming circuits. CFLs have problems operating in colder weather, which makes the much less operable for outdoor lighting. This is problematic for those who have motion detectors as a part of home-security lighting. Additionally, CFLs contain mercury. Mercury poisoning is a legitimate concern with CFLs, which is why in the event that a CFL breaks, there is a complicated clean-up process (see EPA instructions here). And what about shattered CFLs in landfills? There still is not a standardized mechanism for disposing of CFLs. Mercury seeping into groundwater or soil is hardly beneficial.

There are some environmental issues with CFLs, which is why I also have to be skeptical about the carbon emissions reductions claim. Only 13% of electricity in the typical home is used for lighting (EIA), and that assumes that lightbulbs are a big carbon emitter in the first place. Let's not forget that we've been experiencing a decrease in carbon emissions that is unrelated to CFLs. Unless CFLs can produce a much more substantial reduction in energy production or carbon emissions, the switch over to CFLs wouldn't do much on the fight against global warming. Now that I think about it, how does banning incandescent light bulbs help score victory points for the environment? CFLs are a substitute good. There is still going to be a demand for lightbulbs. CFLs are not going to make any significant strides in slowing energy consumption, and even so, we should consider the energy intensity decline. If decreasing energy consumption were the policy goal (which I'm not recommending by any means), a Pigovian tax would be more effective.      

CFLs are not the end result of winning in a competitive market. The "victory" of CFLs is the result of what happens when Big Business gets into bed with Big Government for the purpose of regulatory capture. As economist Don Boudreaux points out, "any legislation forcing Americans to switch from using one type of bulb to another is inevitably the product of a horrid mix of interest-group politics with reckless symbolism designed to placate an electorate that increasingly believes that the sky is falling." If CFLs were really that great of a product, they would not need for the government to intervene with a ban.   

Considering the government's call for regulating energy efficiency, this is another example of the government micromanaging while curtailing consumer freedom in the process. Let's forget for a moment that the cost savings or benefits to the environment are questionable. The government is impeding the marketplace from competing and innovating to figure out which type of light bulb works best. Since there are certain situations in which it's better to have incandescents and other situations to have CFLs or LEDs, the government also impedes the customer from making the choice of which bulb works best for them. If people want to buy more efficient lightbulbs, let them. If not, let them. Consumers are capable of making the decision. It's their choice, and the government does not need to step into our lighting choices. All the government is doing is distorting market forces yet again. It would brighten up my day to see the government repeal this ban and allow Americans to choose whichever lightbulbs they desire.

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