Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs are purported to be the Wave Of The Future by people who haven’t heard of light-emitting diodes. CFLs are notable for their reduced power demands, small amounts of mercury, vast amounts of hype, and apparently insatiable demand for legislation. For now, though, I’m going to stick to “reduced power demands”.
In the midst of a generalized political rant on the impending
ban on regulation-out-of-existence of incandescent, Virginia Postrel gives us this comment on the purpose of CFLs:
What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use (which is itself only a proxy for the total emissions caused by generating that electricity). If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.
Instead, the law raises the price of light bulbs, but not the price of using them. In fact, its supporters loudly proclaim that the new bulbs will cost less to use.
(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen.)
Suppose I have a power bill that averages $30/month, and that a significant chunk of said power bill comes from my bizarre and incomprehensible fetish for keeping my apartment blazingly lit at all hours rather than, say, my 1970s-vintage kitchen appliances. Further suppose that I diligently replace my incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, for a one-time cost of free-because-it’s-earth-magic, and that my average power bill drops to $25/month. Yay! I’m saving the planet!
Well, not necessarily. I’ve apparently been willing to carry a $30/mo power bill in the past, so now I can choose between the added utility of one more pint of beer a month and the added utility of spending $5/mo worth of electricity on something else. As a confirmed computer nerd with a perfectly sensible and understandable uptime fetish, I might just drag a few parts out of my closet, throw together a fileserver, and leave it running 24/7: the peace of mind that comes from regular backups and the white noise that comes from a half-dozen 80mm fans will help me get to sleep. Is a good night’s sleep worth $5/mo? Hell yes, and with the lights on all the time I need all the help I can get in this thought experiment.
“But what about the planet?” you cry, aggrieved. Well, what about the planet? When I spent $30/mo on electricity in my incandescent-bulb phase, I wasn’t just willing to pay the monetary costs: I was also willing to pay however much I’d internalized of the environmental costs. The key word here is “internalized”: if you want me to reduce my power consumption for the good of the environment, you have to either internalize more of those environmental costs or provide superior substitutes. The latter is awfully tricky, so you’re best off trying to internalize environmental costs — and the obvious way to start on that is with a Pigovian tax on electricity.
I am making a pretty big assumption, here: that people can always find a way to use a bit more electricity at the margins. I don’t think this is terribly controversial: most people, if they have a bit of slack in the power bill, wouldn’t mind taking longer showers, or running the AC a bit cooler, or buying a coal-powered car. If your demand for electricity is completely sated, however, switching to CFLs will reduce your power consumption: just about anything else on which you’d spend five bucks a month is a superior substitute.