Do compact fluorescent lights really save energy?

Earlier this month, Congress passed a law which will essentially force the public to switch to compact fluorescent lights. (CFLs)  Environmentalists and light bulb makers joined forces to boost power and profits, and perhaps sue the competition out of existence.Some people object to the narrow light spectrum and toxic Mercury content
of CFL lights, but I don’t care about those things.  I have replaced
most of the incandescent lights in my apartment, and plan to eventually
replace the rest.  What I question is not the usefulness of CFLs, but
the premise that switching to them will “save energy.”

As with most goods and services, the price of a utility influences
the quantity I am willing to pay for.  When the price of gas doubles, I
reconsider taking road trips, and try to be more efficient with my
driving.  Likewise, when the price of electricity falls, I am more
liberal with my power consumption.   Compact fluorescent lights lower
the cost of lightning in two ways: they use one quarter of the energy,
and they last ten times as long.  These innovations encourage greater usage of lighting.

I have a spiffy IKEA lamp behind my couch, but
because I don’t have a light in my ceiling fan, it needs to be extra
bright.  Furthermore, the geometry of my living room makes it annoying
to walk behind the couch every day to turn it on.  By switching to a
compact fluorescent light, I was able to get a 100 watt equivalent
light in a 60 watt socket, and thanks to its efficiency and long life,
I just leave the light permanently on.  I am enjoying greater
convenience, but I don’t know if I am saving any energy.

If the average consumer’s monthly lightning budget is fixed, they
might compensate for the higher efficiency and lifespan of CFLs by
increasing their lightning usage to completely offset any energy
reduction.  This would be especially true if consumers are
forced to switch to CFLs by legislators rather than a desire to save
energy costs.  Much as auto safety regulations can lead to reckless behavior, forcing consumers to switch to more efficient lights might actually increase their energy usage.

(Crossposted)

One response to “Do compact fluorescent lights really save energy?

  1. Michael Huntington

    In addition, as Bastiat would remind us, we need to consider the unseen. In the case of flourescent lights, it may be true that consumers would use less electricity (or, as you argue, perhaps not), but is their manufacture more efficient? Is any potential decrease in electricity used by consumers offset by an increase in energy used during the manufacture of flourescent as opposed to incandescent bulbs?

    More than energy use, there is also the question of the use of all the other resources that go into producing one type of bulb or the other. The “Autobiography of a Pencil” should remind us of the complexity of the network of knowledge and resources lying behind any seemingly simple commodity. Only a truly free market can effectively allocate resources to their most valued uses; and that, only through a pricing system based on money (real market based commodity money, not Fed generated fiat dollars).

    Any government intervention in the market for bulbs (whether through restrictions or subsidies or whatever) automatically skews the market system for allocating resources, so that it becomes impossible to determine whether more or less resources are being used by one type of bulb or another. The fact, however, that intervention is called for, almost seems to guarentee that the flourescent bulbs are in fact less efficient overall; otherwise why would any intervention be considered necessary?

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