Why are eco-fascists trying to ban incandescent bulbs?

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Dear Cecil: Please comment on the global energy-conservation insanity surrounding the incandescent light bulb, i.e., initiatives around the world to ban it. (Some call the instigators of these measures “eco-fascists.”) How good are energy-saving fluorescent or halogen light bulbs really? Ivona, Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

You want a comment? I’ll give you two:

1. Although halogen bulbs don’t offer much of an energy savings over ordinary incandescents, compact fluorescents sure do, and you’d be a fool not to use them whenever you could. Me, I’ve got ’em all over the house, including right here in the desk lamp.

2. Telling me I have to use them — production and import of conventional 100-watt incandescent bulbs were effectively banned January 1 — is a pointless intrusion on my personal rights.

The facts:

The incandescent light bulb, though surely up there with the telephone as Coolest Invention Ever, has like old rotary-dial phones been rendered obsolete by advancing technology. It’s one of the least efficient devices you’ll ever lay hands on, converting just 5 to 8 percent of the energy it uses into light, with the rest thrown off as heat. Easy-Bake Ovens used to use a 100-watt incandescent bulb as their heat source. Not anymore — the toy was redesigned in the expectation that 100-watt bulbs would disappear.

Halogen bulbs are only marginally better. Though much is made of the fact that they’re 30 percent more efficient than ordinary incandescent bulbs, 30 percent better than completely dismal is still embarrassingly bad. Ninety percent of the energy used by a halogen bulb is given off as heat — the bulbs can reach temperatures of 700 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making them a fire hazard. I’m sure there must be some reason to use halogen bulbs, but energy efficiency isn’t it.

CFL bulbs are a different story. They use only about a quarter of the energy of an incandescent bulb to produce the same light, waste much less heat, and supposedly last eight to ten times as long. Though some complain about CFL light quality, in my estimation it’s comparable to incandescent light — nowhere near as harsh as what you get from old-fashioned fluorescent tubes.

That said, CFL bulbs have annoying drawbacks. They can take a minute or more to reach full brightness, an inconvenience if you’re flipping on a closet light. They work poorly in the cold — I have one in a recessed ceiling fixture with an unheated attic above it, and when I first switch it on in the winter I can get more illumination by lighting a match. The failure rate is higher than advertised. I’ve had a couple burn out after just a few months in recessed cans in the kitchen, a typical experience judging from news accounts out of California, which implemented anti-incandescent legislation a year ahead of the rest of the country.

Disposing of CFL bulbs is a pain. They contain mercury and so must be brought to a special recycling facility rather than tossed in the trash. Early reports suggesting you’d have to call in a hazmat team if you broke one were exaggerated. The fact remains that the EPA’s advisory about what to do if you have an accident lists 19 steps.

Some say CFL bulbs are an interim technology that will eventually be swept away by bulbs utilizing light-emitting diodes. LED bulbs use even less energy than CFLs, reach full brightness instantly, don’t run on mercury, are unaffected by cold, and supposedly will last 25,000 to 50,000 hours. Unfortunately, the LED equivalent of a 100-watt incandescent bulb right now costs on the order of 50 bucks.

I won’t be stocking up on LED bulbs any time soon. Still, I’m an eco kind of guy. Left to my own devices, my guess is I’d wind up with maybe 60 percent CFL bulbs at my house and the rest incandescent.

But no. The government says that, except for specialty applications, I’ll have to replace them all.

All in the service of the greater good, you say. If only it were so. The net social benefit of legislating incandescent bulbs out of existence is likely to be negligible. A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council says changing bulbs will eliminate the need to build 30 electric power plants. That sounds like a lot until you realize the U.S. has 5,800 electric power plants.

Even the trivial gain being claimed is illusory. As we’ve discussed in the past, you run up against the Jevons paradox: as use of a resource becomes more efficient, it effectively becomes cheaper, stimulating greater use. After the passage of fuel-efficiency laws following the 1970s energy crisis, for instance, gasoline usage went up. The perhaps unwitting response to more-efficient light bulbs may wind up being something similar: Great, I can quit worrying about switching the lights off when unneeded and squander the energy savings on something else.

Notwithstanding the Straight Dope tradition of calling ’em like we sees ’em, it’s odd to find yourself lining up with Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal. But there you are.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.