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 incandescents 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 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 shows that over a 5 year time frame CFLs and LEDs far outperform 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 in 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 cannot 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% heat loss.  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 than other forms of power production (hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, etc).

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?

*Update - 6/6/11 - Check out this great article from the NY Times about LEDs, CFLs, light color and the law effectively banning incandescents

enjoyed our post? let others know: 


I do not see CFLs as a replacement for your "frig" light, garage doors opener lights or even closet lights. With this low duty cycle where would the payback be? And the slow warm up of CFLs that I have experience with don't provide enough short term light...until they warm up. Why bother in these applications?
ckmapawatt's picture
I would agree with you. For those applications, I would check out the halogen lights.
There are exceptions to every rule. I live in SE Alaska, a land of year-round heating requirements and no need of A/C. Our electricity comes from hydro. I heat with electricity. The math is simple: a watt consumed indoors produces heat. When I swap out my incandescent bulbs for more "efficient" lighting all I am doing is running other electrical devices (such as space heaters) to compensate. I save no money, unless I want to invest a mint in a geothermal heat pump.
Michael, I wholeheartedly agree with your perspective. I live in eastern Canada, and use electric resistive heating to some degree (no pun intended) for about 8 months a year. Given the fact that CFL's cost more initially and I would argue over their life cycle as well, and I have to replace the heat that would have been produced by a comparable incandescent bulb, there is limited if any benefit _FOR ME_ to move to CFL's. In fact, while I did exactly that in previous years, I have recently begun replacing some CFL's with incandescent again in rooms with frequent on/off switching because the CFL's die prematurely negating any savings at all. Typically in my home, I doubt if a CFL lasts twice as long as incandescent, despite what all the studies seem to say. There is simply no financial benefit. Add to that, nearly all the electricity produced in the province is hydro generated, so the impact on the environment is negligible. In fact, it's possibly even beneficial since there are no local CFL recycling facilities, meaning they go to the land fill releasing that little bit of mercury... I'm sure everyone's situation is different, but I'll stick to my incandescent lights at home and I'm "environmentally comfortable" with my choice.
Well said. You probably didn't convince many, but you make a good case! The fact that current halogens meet the law is interesting, too. Ikea sells them; they are fairly cheap, and have none of the CFL drawbacks (real or perceived). They do still cost slightly more though.
ckmapawatt's picture
Eric, the halogens were something I didnt consider. I'll do some research and come up with a blog post on that. Thanks.
Nicely said Chris, very rational argument and clarification of the hidden costs and externalities. I agree with you 100%. - $2 each. Not as efficient as a CFL, but 30% better than an incandescent... to be honest I haven't tried them (I like my CFLs well enough) but it seems like a viable option for the CFL-haters.
Hey Michael & Lionel, I've heard this argument before, though not usually from people who use electric resistance heating 365 days a year (really, no summer?). Depending on how many of your incandescents are in or near the ceiling, it seems like at least some of the heat gained from your incandescent lights is not benefitting the people inside your house. Maybe folks in a second story, but many of them keep the attic insulation warm? Also, regarding the benefits of hydro, you are fortunate not to have coal-fire electricity imported to your grid. Unless your electricity grid is isolated or under-built, it seems like if you used less electricity (e.g. switched to heating with a geothermal heat pump) that then your hydro-produced electricity could be exported to folks currently getting their electricity from sources with a higher environmental impact (not that hydro is without impact on fisheries, etc).

Post new comment

Subscribe to Comments for "Why the incandescent deserves its death"