What are CFLs for?

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.


4 Responses to “What are CFLs for?”

  1. 1 TMI
    June 11, 2011 at 18:44


    There are those who wish to denigrate economic theory as theory. The problem is, the theory is a reflection of observable data. Economists aren’t wizards who autogenously posit theories. As a former economist, and mathematician, it became incumbent to not only have a gift for modeling, but having the balls to apply the data sets to test that theory.

    Since I’ve been reading your place for years, I know that you’ve been going through the test of grad school, and your viewpoints on the process have been amusing. Yes, most of the candidates in your, or my, class are basically data miners. Come up with a new subset of genus and your advisor will advance your thesis to the board. It has been fun watching you go through your process.

    Unfortunately, you’re going to find that those things that you realize are fundamental, are fundamental to such a degree that few, if any, recognise it.

    Great post. Great Le Mans, looks like a great Gran Prix this weekend.

    Enjoy life. Never marry. Take up golf instead. That’s what Jeeves would offer.

  2. 2 perlhaqr
    June 12, 2011 at 07:23

    CFLs are for making greenies feel good about themselves for as long as they don’t know about the mercury in them. Jesus, they panic because there’s some of the stuff in the fish in San Francisco bay, and then want to shovel the stuff directly into our houses.

  3. 3 Not Sure
    June 12, 2011 at 22:39

    “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!”

    Until everybody else does the same and the power company gets the government to approve a rate increase because they’re not making as much money as last year.

    • June 12, 2011 at 22:52

      Sort of a Pigovian tax in reverse, yeah, only with a corporatist rather than a populist flavour. (Things like “the power company gets the government” make me acutely unhappy, but them’s the breaks as long as we don’t get to have miniature thorium thermoreactors next to our hot-water heaters.)

      If you want people to use less electricity, make electricity more expensive. (You might want to question whether you actually want people to use less electricity, but that’s another blog post.)

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