The Dernogalizer

October 2, 2009


Filed under: Energy/Climate — Matt Dernoga @ 9:59 am
Tags: ,

I think I just read the most incoherent op-ed in the long long time.  A reallly long time.  I’m going to just go through this column in the Washington Post by David Henderson titled “Let there by Incandescent Light”, and pick some parts of it apart, although some areas are so insane I won’t be able to find much to say.  My comments are in bold.

What would Thomas Edison say?

He’d say “took you all long enough”.

Last month, stores in Europe stopped acquiring new stocks of Edison’s brilliant invention. In truth, the traditional incandescent light bulb is terribly inefficient: Only about 10 percent of its energy output is in the form of visible light; the rest is emitted as heat. Switching everyone to alternatives such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) will result in fairly significant reductions in energy consumption, which will help Europe meet its targets for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Okay, so we’ve agreed that incandescents are terribly inefficient, and that Europe will reduce emissions by switching to CFL’s.  Good.

A similar ban, written into energy legislation a few years ago, is to take effect in the United States in 2012. Though it has distinct improvements over the European legislation, this ban is still a bad idea.

So our way of doing it is better, which I should take to imply will help us reduce emissions even more, but is bad.  Okay, at this point I’m expecting a damn good reason no one has ever thought of.

While the European Union outlawed a particular technology, Congress set minimum efficiency requirements for lighting. Old-fashioned (regular) incandescent bulbs do not meet this standard, but by 2012 there may very well be some improved incandescents on the market that will.

Yes, as I noted a few months ago, increasing our light bulb standards has resulted in better, more efficient incandescent bulbs, proving that setting standards sparks innovation.  By the looks of it, consumers will still be able to choose between incandescents and CFL’s, but will save money and use less energy because of the new standards.  Isn’t this good?

That this change is manifest in our daily lives makes it a meaningful and encouraging option, but it should be just that: a voluntary option. Light bulbs are a poor choice for regulation. Is there an overriding reason to regulate how Americans light their homes?

Well, it’s simple, it’s easy, it doesn’t lower the standard of living, it saves people money, reduces the need for new dirty energy sources, and reduces pollution along with emissions.  Other than that, no reason.

It’s true that compact fluorescent lights are widely appreciated among those with heightened “green” sensibilities. They are a welcome option for those who are trying to reduce their environmental impact. Replacing bulbs may be a small measure, but it is also something that can be done by people who may feel powerless or frustrated before the larger problems besetting our planet.


But many people also have a decided dislike of CFLs and will greatly resent the ban. While they may last longer than incandescent bulbs, the upfront cost is high; the light produced is not as bright as that of incandescent bulbs; they are slow to achieve full brightness; the bulbs don’t fit in many old lamps; they can’t be dimmed; and their lifespan is greatly shortened by using them for less than 15 minutes at a time. The manufacturers of compact fluorescent lights have made improvements on some of these issues, but their reputation is not yet vindicated.

I doubt many people even know there is a ban in a few years.  Your upfront cost complaint flies in the face of your energy saving argument.  The only valid complaint that I can see you have is the one on dimming.  Everything else looks pretty false.  Referring back to the upfront cost, in the 15 years following the phase out, consumers will save 40 billion dollars on their energy bills.

The environmental benefits of using only compact fluorescent bulbs are indirect — and less than what could be realized by changing standards governing, for example, coal use. Consider: The benefit of “reducing inefficiency” depends on where the energy is coming from. Improving efficiency without eliminating a harmful source may just free energy that is then used elsewhere. If there is no net reduction in energy use, where is the benefit? Direct regulation of harmful activities, such as putting firm limits on carbon emissions, is more likely to achieve the desired environmental result. (And this would only indirectly influence my bedroom decor.) A great deal of the wasted energy in lighting comes from excessive nighttime lighting in public spaces, which is an excellent issue for government to address. Banning traditional light bulbs as used in private homes seems an effort in the name of environmental protection that has very little payoff.

This is where Henderson really goes off the deep end.  The net impact of many homes reducing their monthly energy use by 10-20 percent would be incredible.  Both in money saved and in less emissions since there isn’t a need to build more coal plants, and you would even be able to shut down some old ones.  In addition, don’t forget all the lighting in buildings and businesses, which usually makes up greater percentages of their energy use.  But here’s where Henderson makes no sense.  He starts by saying energy efficiency won’t reduce energy use.  Then he says instead of raising home lighting standards, a better move would be to deal with lighting in public spaces.  Isn’t the objective the same?  Improving efficiency and reducing energy use?  How is that more effective than improved light bulb standards?  Really, what are you talking about Henderson?  You said at the beginning of your column the better standards would help Europe reduce emissions.

There is more political will behind environmental reform than is generally appreciated, but it is not unlimited. We should invest our political capital where it will be most effective, not burn it in compact fluorescents. Congress should regulate matters that require the force of law, such as banning mountaintop removal in coal mining and new coal-burning power plants. Leave people to change their own light bulbs.

Right, so according to Henderson, raising light bulb standards is a harder political sell than banning mountaintop removal or new coal plants.  Absolutely no concept of the politics or acknowledgement of the efforts already underway to do the two far more difficult things Henderson suggestions.

The writer teaches environmental ethics in the philosophy and religion department at Western Carolina University.

How do you have a job??????  How did you get published in the Washington Post???

To close the door on the energy efficiency question, Mckinsey has noted in their recent study “The research shows that the U.S. economy has the potential to reduce annual non-transportation energy consumption by roughly 23 percent by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste – well beyond the $520 billion upfront investment (not including program costs) that would be required. The reduction in energy use would also result in the abatement of 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.”

I’m sure they included better light bulbs in that analysis.



  1. Hi Matt,

    As you know I believe it’s wrong to ban (or set efficiency regulation on) light bulbs
    — see previous comment exchange which deals with most issues you raise here

    In addition:
    Substantial savings on heating in temperate climates (ironically govmt reseach supporting this, used to justify bans on basis of interfering w air conditioning)
    Note that CFLs actually produce a lot of heat too, but it’s internalized,
    the ballast heat build-up giving a fire risk in enclosed spaces

    CFL lab tested in 3 hour cycles, but much reduced in real life on-off switching,

    Brightness measurement issues also apply.

    Power factor alone,
    means half the quoted savings don’t apply for typical CFLs

    See on the above topics

    As said in the previous post comments,
    the ban is in my view wrong regardless of improved incandescents etc coming on the market,
    if they are good enough people will buy them anyway.

    Comment by peter in dublin — October 3, 2009 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

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