Why the incandescent deserves its death

First off, there is no law actually calling for the death of the incandescent.  The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 actually states something along the lines of :

… requires all general-purpose light bulbs that produce 310–2600 lumens of light be 30% more energy efficient (similar to current halogen lamps) than current incandescent bulbs by 2012 to 2014. The efficiency standards will start with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and end with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014.

So it doesn’t explicitly say you can’t use incandescents, it just lays out standards that light bulbs have to meet, and most indancescents aren’t going to cut it.  The actual text regarding to the incandescent’s demise can be seen in Section 321 of the full bill, found here.

But aside from the actual wording of the law, the fact is that the incandescent is going the way of the Dodo bird.  There are many in this country who are outraged.  They feel like the Federal government has no right to tell them what bulb they can and can’t use.  And I can see their argument…to a point.  Before we actually look at why the incandescent deserves to die, let’s look at why replacements for the incandescent – CFLs and LEDs – are finally making sense for homeowners.

In the near term, most people will be replacing incandescents with CFLs.  There were a lot of problems with early batches of CFLs, but the ones I have in my house have worked great.  Make sure that you pick the right color temperature (the color of light the bulb puts out).  For the CFLs I buy, I picked a color temperature close to incandescents, and it is a great match and brighter.  There are no start-up delay issues that I’ve heard about with other CFLs.  Basically, when it comes to bulb quality, you may have to do a little more research than you did with incandescents, but it will be worth it.

Which brings us to payback.  I have a lighting cost calculator on our post Best Lighting Cost Calculator which showed that over a 5 year time frame CFLs and LEDs far outperformed incandescents on a cost basis.   From a life-cycle cost perspective, CFLs outperform incandescents in just a few months.  LEDs still may take a few years but the cost of LEDs seems to be coming down every 6 months!

Finally you have the concern that some people have about mercury in CFLs.  I addressed this in our post Let’s put Mercury in CFLs in Perspective.  If you read this post and you’re still worried about CFLs, lucky for you that LEDs are finally getting affordable!

Now we come to the reasons I support the death of the incandescent!

In most cases, I am for limited government intervention.  I probably subscribe closest to the Libertarian political ideology.  I usually champion the free markets and the power they have to bring about honest human decisions.  But there is one area that free markets fail miserably in, and that is for accounting for externalities.  This is where things get interesting when it comes to the banning of the incandescent.

People like incandescents because they like the color they put out, but mostly because they have a cheap initial cost.  Humans are notoriously awful at factoring in long term operational costs, and are more concerned with the initial price we pay.  Basically, humans aren’t wired to make the most sustainable (from an environmental and economical) decision.  People don’t want the government telling them what they can and can not buy for their hard earned dollar.  But while incandescents are cheap to buy, they are much more expensive to operate over the long term, and that is because they are so energy inefficient.  Most of the electricity used in an incandscent is lost to heat, about 90%.  And chances are that the majority of that electricity was generated by fossil fuel power.  As we all know, fossil fuel power production pollutes the environment much more other forms of power production.

So by effectively banning the incandescent bulb the government is limiting the harmful effects of fossil fuel power production pollution that society encounters.

To those who say that the government has no right to tell them what bulb they can buy I ask, “What right do you have to pollute my air?”  It’s the same reason I am against smoking cigarettes in public places.  I’m fine with the fact that cigarette smokers want to shorten their life for a little nicotine buzz, but I’m not fine with the fact that I have to suffer for their enjoyment.

I believe it is the government’s job to protect the air we breathe, because we all know the free-market has no chance at this.  Is the incandescent the best target?  Who knows….but it sure is a start.

More importantly, what do YOU think?

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Tags: ban, incandescent

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Comment by James McGarvey on May 27, 2011 at 12:18pm
I am all for energy conservation, am in the process of attempting to build a zero heat home.  But I will be stocking up on the old bulbs which I intend to use as my winter lighting to get both heat and lighting.  I will also want some of the incandescent bulbs for areas of the home where they will be turned off and on many times a day.
Comment by Robert DV on May 27, 2011 at 11:04am
Has anyone seen a LCA comparing an incandescent lamp to a CFL?  What is the embodied energy of a CFL?
Comment by fmrubinstein on May 26, 2011 at 6:23pm

Chris-

Thank you for this contribution. Very clear-headed thinking.

Comment by Robert vanCreveld on May 26, 2011 at 12:27pm

CFLs are great for lamps that are left on for long periods of time. They are not good for short on-off applications. Their lifespans are short and they are not economical for closet lamps or stairways. In my heating climate, the fact that 90% of the energy is converted to heat is benefit. I need the heat in my envelope anyway and that "lost" energy is utilized.

Saying that this legislation is not a ban is disingenuous.

For the record, most of my lamps are cfls, but I cringe everytime I need to turn on the lamp to find a tool in the basement and turn it off again about a minute later.

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