Battle of the bulbs

Michael Siminovitch, an advocate for compact fluorescent light bulbs, had an illuminating (sorry, couldn’t resist) interview in The New York Times yesterday:

[...] there was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration. Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.

By and large the average consumer is buying a light source to provide the right quality of light. In this continuing trend to reduce cost, which is an important driver, we compromised quality.

We’ve gone too far on this thing, and what’s happened is some of these compact fluorescent technologies have become so inexpensive [that] at the same time they’ve lost a lot of their intrinsic quality. And they don’t last very long. And this is bad because the end result here is that yes, we have a very inexpensive technology, consumers will buy it, but they have a long memory.

Product failures instill a lack of confidence in the technology. [...]

When we only encourage energy efficiency, which is very important, we compromise other issues. The market penetration for compact fluorescents in this country, while we’re making good strides, is not very impressive. There’s no reason today why we shouldn’t be using all energy efficient technologies in the home. The reason we’re not is consumers don’t like this technology.

We need to get past that. We need to develop a lighting technology that people really like. They like the color, they like the quality, they like the delivery, and, by the way, it’s energy efficient.

It will be illegal to sell traditional incandescent bulbs in the United States come 2012, sooner in Canada, the EU, and Australia. By then, hopefully, CFLs and perhaps some LEDs will have overcome their current flaws to become perfect substitutes for incandescents. Yet the bans work against this goal. CFL manufacturers will have to compete against each other, but they’ll be protected from competition from ordinary bulbs. Why be surprised that they’re not putting products on the market that can stand up?

My current apartment is a mix of CFLs and incandescents. The CFL in my closet is really terrible. It flickers and makes noise as it powers on and the light is of poor quality. I don’t care though because it’s just a closet. The lamp by my couch where I curl up with a book and a drink at night is lit by a 40 watt GE Reveal incandescent. It puts off a wonderfully warm light and I’d hate to see it go. The same is true for my bedroom lamp, one my cousin and I made from Michigan birch wood when I was a kid. With a CFL the clip-on shade, at least, would have to be replaced.

As CFLs improve I’d gladly transition more of my apartment over to them. I might even switch entirely. Or I might not; old technology has its charms. A country in which people switch nearly all of their light fixtures would be slightly less energy efficient than one in which they’re forced to replace 100% them, but it would also be marginally happier.

If CFLs and LEDs become as good as their boosters claim they will, there will be no need to ban their century old competitor. And if they don’t, it’s not the government’s place to tell us we can’t keep the cozy corners of our households.

Update: To clarify, by “traditional incandescents” I mean the kind widely available on the market now. The energy bill didn’t ban incandescent technology explicitly, it just set new energy standards that it does not meet — effectively banning it. Some incandescent manufacturers may adapt.

Comments

  1. Doug Winship says:

    Good post Jacob.
    For the record, I am slowly accumulating a hoard of standard technology incandescent bulbs in my basement for the long, flickering, blue night to come.
    We are one family that they have already poisoned the quality well for.

  2. Jeff says:

    LEDs are a lot better – I hope that technology becomes marketable soon. NCSU is in the process of replacing their bulbs with LEDs…

    Something similar happened with solar hot water during the late ’70s energy crisis. Carter and Congress extended tax credits to people who adopted what was then an emerging technology – so there was a rush similar to what’s happening with CFLs now.

    The resulting systems, as one might expect, were poorly designed, frequently leaky, and had a habit of breaking in the winter when they were most needed (instead of using EG or PG for heat transfer to a tank like most modern systems, they heated water directly, and didn’t have a tank for the water to filter into when the system wasn’t being used so water just sat in the pipes. Predictably, this would freeze and burst the pipes if it ever got really cold). A couple more years of slow growth would have led to higher industry standards that avoided this problem.

    This left a bad taste in the mouths of consumers that people in the SHW industry are still dealing with some 30 years later, despite the fact that modern SHW systems are reliable and are a clear money-saver for most homeowners…

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