Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A no-brainer

Australia is moving to phase out incandescent lightbulbs, and our government is looking at following suit. Is it a good idea?

Undeniably yes. The new compact fluorescent bulbs cost five times as much (less if you get them as part of an electricity company promotion), use a fifth of the power, and last eight times longer. They're already more than cost-effective, paying for themselves within a year of purchase. Mandating their use will drive uptake, and ultimately save everybody money. From an energy policy perspective, domestic lighting is 2.75% of gross electricity usage, so reducing it by 80% would allow us to offset around a year's demand growth. And from a climate change perspective, it would save approximately 130,000 tonnes of CO2 a year - not a lot, but every bit helps.

In short, it's a no-brainer. So why is our government dragging its feet on following suit?


I believe there was a (somewhat substantiated) worry that if everyone was using the basically identical bulbs (eg the same make) there was some kind of mass cycling issue that could mess up the grid.

And then I guess there's the Sam Vimes 'boots' theory of inequality. Rich people can afford expensive boots that last forever, poor people have to buy cheap boots that don't last - so the rich spend less money.

Admittedly, if you're - for example - buying a house, the cost of the bulbs isn't that much of an issue.

Posted by Lyndon : 2/21/2007 02:31:00 PM

> Admittedly, if you're - for example
> - buying a house, the cost of the
> bulbs isn't that much of an issue.

Not compared to the cost of regulatory compliance, no :-)

Seriously, this whole incandescent / fluorescent bulb issue could be resolved by market forces.

If electricity provision was privatised & deregulated, the true cost of electricity would determine whether the low-usage bulbs are truly economical.

But of course the politicians want to have their cake and eat it to: they want to regulate electricity in order to win votes ... but then they realise that artificially cheap electricity (& it is - else we wouldn't be suffering 'shortages' every year) leads people to use inefficient devices. So they try to fix it through more legislation ...

It'd be funny if it wasn't tragic.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 2/21/2007 02:49:00 PM

Duncan, you're still clutching like a dying man to the premise of the rational consumer. Give it up - it was always a simplistic idealogical concept rather than anything resembling reality.
Consumers are not rational, have never been rational, and will forever continue to be irrational.

You can try rigging the pricing model to modify their behaviour if you wish, but that's just another form of tinkering. If you expect modest price increases to drive idealised consumer behaviour, I'd say you're smoking crack - look at the number of 4WDs on the roads.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/21/2007 03:14:00 PM

But it is the consumers RIGHT to be irrational!

jeez our politicians make a living out of being irrational.


Posted by Lawrence of Otago : 2/21/2007 03:44:00 PM

heh heh. of course consumers have the right to be irrational, just as governments have a responsibility to try and shepherd them in some arguably "desirable" direction.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/21/2007 03:49:00 PM


I'm not suggesting rigging the pricing, or suggesting that higher energy costs would necessarily lead to energy saving devices.

I'm suggesting it be determined by the free market, & people can make their choices based on that. If that leads people to adopt energy saving devices, fine. If not, fine.

What drives me absolutely nuts is politicians tinkering to undo the effects of earlier tinkering, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Seriously, since reading a bit about the cost savings of such bulbs, I'm going to try buying some once in Melbourne, & see if they shape up.

I've heard anecdotes about them not being as good as incandescent bulbs where you need bright light (painting at night, e.g.), so I don't see myself converting my entire house to them without a limited trial first.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 2/21/2007 03:52:00 PM

Fluorescent blubs aren't precisely equivalent to incandescents in application. They have a different colour spectrum, for a start, so perceptually, they just don't appear as bright as there alleged equivalent incandecent. They're larger than incandescent blubs, so there are places you can't put them. You can't dim them. You can't get 200 watt equivalents.

And really.Banning incandescent blubs. How illiberal.

If the government wants people to switch, they could subsidise long life bulbs for low income families. Installing them into state housing should be easy enough to do.

But it's tinkering around the edges. The real problem in the residential market is energy used for heating.

Posted by Unknown : 2/21/2007 05:28:00 PM

JWM: And really.Banning incandescent blubs. How illiberal.

You could say the same about any technological standard. 240V A/C - how illiberal! A standard metre - how illiberal! A standard formulation for petrol - how illiberal!

Technological standards hep make society work. Minimum energy performance standards help drive the market towards improved technology (something, which, despite the dogma of people like Duncan, it does not necessarily do very well itself). This is beneficial for consumers, and beneficial for society as a whole.

If the government wants people to switch, they could subsidise long life bulbs for low income families. Installing them into state housing should be easy enough to do.

I'd like to see this too - and it's a obvious program to fund from emissions trading revenues. The cost would be peanuts - $5 million buys a million bulbs at retail, enough to do between quarter and half a million houses. It would reduce electricity bills for the poor, while also reducing emisisons. And a program targetting state house tenants is also a no-brainer.

(One of the political challenges for climate change policy is reducing the distributional effect on low-income families; this is one way of doing it).

Obviously, I'd also like to see heating targeted. There's already a home insulation program, which is worth it for the health cobenefits alone, and there's a solar heating program to reduce energy used on water heating. But domestic lighting is significant, and the cheapest and easiest thing to target.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/21/2007 05:48:00 PM

Who cares about being liberal anyway.

It is time we realized the average citizen just isn't going to make the best decision for the enviroment or society when buying a light bulb and needs a bit of 'help'.

I suggest taxes [and eventually a ban] on disposable nappies would be another good thing to tackle. (afterall, who is paying for the landfill?) and its not like NZ is making them.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/21/2007 06:47:00 PM

It depends on the applicaiton... incandescent bulbs produce heat, and the new-fangled ones don't. Sometimes they're use for this reason, animal incubators for chicks and piglets come to mind, and those cute little suzie easy-bake ovens Americans use to indoctrinate little girls into housemotherhood... or melt Barbie's face if you're a Gen-X.

I'd prefer to see an incentive scheme rather than a prohibition.

Yes, I think lighting should shift to incandescents, but they'd better act fast because LEDs are catching up real fast and should be cheaper than either.

Posted by Bloodrage : 2/21/2007 10:19:00 PM

"Technological standards help make society work"

Standards are necessary when there needs to be interconnection and interoperability - light bulbs don't exactly get connected to each other!

The point comes down to a fundamental view of whether there really should be a nanny state or not.

Those who think it should be, believe that bureaucrats and politicians can centrally plan "what is best" for everyone - which of course is nonsense, as in most cases they cannot have all of the information necessary to know what is best for everyone on everything. Those who don't, think people actually have initiative and can figure out for themselves what is best.

They'll make mistakes, they wont always act rationally, but by and large most of the time, most people make the right decision for themselves.

The key arrogance is those who think they know what is best for people.

Some people do NOT like fluorescent light bulbs - why shouldn't they use them as long as they pay for the electricity? Why should the manufacturers of fluorescent bulbs effectively be given the right to inflate the prices because the key competition is banned?

Posted by Libertyscott : 2/21/2007 10:22:00 PM

As a rational consumer, I've installed fluorescent bulbs wherever possible in my house. Even used an electricity company's voucher to do so at lower cost. But ... the available fluorescent bulbs don't fit around 1/3rd of my fixtures.

Lucky I don't have dimmers too, as gwm points out.

As a practical matter, surely incandescents can't be banned for as long as fluorescents can't replace them for all functions?

Posted by dc_red : 2/22/2007 09:35:00 AM

The PM made noises about investigating when the bulb could be banned. It may just happen...

And manufacturers have got remarkably good at producing bulbs that produce light similar to that of incandescent bulbs, so the much vaunted 'but they're ugly' argument isn't as strong as seems to be assumed. Choice be damned, they're a ridiculous invention surpassed many decades ago.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/22/2007 09:43:00 AM

> Choice be damned

Nice slogan - it'd go well in big red block letters on your brown shirts.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 2/22/2007 02:34:00 PM

I'm not convinced that a mass-switch to fluorescent bulbs is a "no-brainer."

Apart from the one-off cost, fluorescent bulbs contain mercury.

Quote from the page referenced above:

"Fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. The standard fluorescent lamp contains approximately 20 milligrams of mercury. While there are no known health hazards from exposure to lamps that are intact, improper disposal of fluorescent lamps can contaminate the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that over 800 million lamps are produced each year to replace 800 million lamps that are then disposed. Since 1 gram of mercury is enough to contaminate a 2-acre pond, there is enough mercury in those lamps to contaminate 20 million acres of water."

Posted by Anonymous : 2/24/2007 11:49:00 AM