November 11, 2010

Old wine, new bottles

The real problem with CFLs--besides exposing the hypocrisy of environmentalists who have suddenly discovered the wisdom of regulating toxic materials at threshold, rather than detectable, amounts (though that might be a benefit)--is that their wide adoption encourages political busybodies to imagine that mandating a technology can make it an economic reality.

Rather, you can "mandate" something after it's been proved economically feasible. Fluorescent lighting technology has been economically feasible for fifty years.

A good example of a mandated failure is Japan's analog HDTV system, lauded as forward-thinking in the 1980s when everything Japan did was proof that whatever the U.S. was doing sucked (though that was true about the automobile industry). It ended up an expensive and wasteful white elephant. The U.S. implemented digital HDTV a year ahead of Japan.

There's a lot to be said for not rushing to embrace cutting-edge technologies. The CFL is based on quite old technology that now thrives through improvements in materials science and manufacturing (and, yes, regulatory capture). When I lived in Japan thirty years ago, the not-so-compact CFL was ubiquitous--because it was economical, not because it was "green."

Electricity in Japan is twice as expensive as the U.S. (and even more when factored as a percentage of real income in 1980; if you thought the oil shocks of the early 1970s were shocking in the U.S., they were heart-stopping in Japan). The same goes for automobile fuel efficiency. An old but refined technology like diesel blows away ultra-modern hybrids in raw MPG.

The Japanese make and drive fuel-efficient cars because gas costs twice as much and the registration fees and taxes on large engines ("large" meaning over a paltry 1.6 liters) are ten times as much, not because of government mandates. In fact, higher CAFE standards lower the cost of driving. Making something cheaper does not encourage its conservation.

Over the last quarter century, total vehicle-miles-driven in the U.S. has climbed three times faster than population growth and twice as fast as auto registrations. The only things that temporarily flatten the curve are big honking increases in the price of gasoline and big honking recessions.

Politicians can't raise the price of gas or tax vehicles to levels that would change the behavior of their constituents in meaningful ways (and get reelected), so they tell tall tales that only apply to hypothetical worlds where nobody lives. We go along with the charade because it makes us feel good. It's a substitute for religion--though tithing would be cheaper.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
11/11/2010 12:47 PM   
Unfortunately, many of the CFLs I've tried or seen stink. I had one that just plain failed after a month and another that slowly turned into outputting a ghastly green after a month or so. With those two alone, I could have paid for incandescents for the entire apartment for a year.

I stayed in a hotel last summer with ones that gave natural light, though they were more equivalent to a 25watt bulb not 60watt. If made it feel like you had cataracts.

(My computers, printer and TV chew up more power than the lightbulbs in my place. They electric dryer dwarfs them all, followed by the A/C and the furnace fan.)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
11/11/2010 1:21 PM   
CFLs are definitely improving. Though without good heat dissipation, a CFL will fail faster than an incandescent. And you have to buy 25 more equivalent watts to get the same amount of light.

Under the right conditions, the longevity of a good CFL is probably a better feature than wattage. Some of mine have lasted years.

When I was at Home Depot last week, I also picked up a box of 40 watt Philips incandescents dirt cheap. (I require the full Planck spectrum from my desk lamp to keep my eyesight and sanity.)

The logo on the bulk-rate Philips boxes says, "Stock up now!"

The guy in Germany selling them as "heatballs" has the right idea. As Joe points out, when you have electric heat (water and baseboard), getting uptight about lightbulbs is silly in the extreme.