Best of Frank: Lightbulbs and Lattes

[I'm off this week, enjoying the waning days of summer and catching up on a few things I promised to finish before September. In the meantime, please enjoy this example of that great American summer tradition, reruns. This post originally ran January 25, 2009.]


Latte crop Tim BoydSometimes we confuse the number of visible acts we make working at something with the progress we actually make towards our goal. Let me explain what I mean with a story about what our leaders in Washington have been up to.

Did you know that Congress voted to ban the familiar incandescent light bulb? More than a year ago? It’s true. Starting in 2012, no more 100 watt bulbs and  by 2014 none of any wattage. Clever of them to pass something that doesn’t take effect for 5+ years. The small number of folks who really care are happy, and everybody else won’t even notice until after what must seem like an eternity to the guys inside the beltway.

And people will notice. Although the law does not, strictly speaking, ban the incandescent bulb, it only mandates energy efficiency standards that amount to a ban, the bottom line is that consumers will have to replace the familiar old bulbs with compact fluorescents. And earnest green hype aside, CFLs are not the same. The light they give off is a little bluer, they cost about six times as much (twenty times as much if you want to use a dimmer switch) won’t fit in all existing fixtures, and, let’s face it, look dumb. Oh, and also they contain mercury so are bona fide toxic waste. Not only can’t you recycle them, putting them in the trash is illegal in many places.

So what’s the benefit for this inconvenience? Why, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, of course! By how much, you ask? Good question. For that I will have to do actual research, as none of the news articles seem to cover that. According to the EPA, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity accounts for 38.9% of CO2 emissions in the US. And according to the Energy Information Administration (which is a real government agency, even though it sounds like I made it up) residential use of electricity is 37% of the total, so 14.4% of CO2 is due to the electricity we use in our houses. And how much of electricity used at home is for lighting? Only 8.8%. To put that in perspective, 13.7% goes to the kitchen refrigerator. 3.5% is for stand-alone freezers. The total percentage of our national CO2 output due to household lighting is 1.27%.

And how much of this 1.27% will we eliminate by doing away with Edison’s greatest work? That’s not so clear. But let’s get real, even cutting it in half isn’t going to move the CO2 needle much. Banning stand-alone freezers would probably be just as effective and much less annoying. There is even the argument to be made, which I don’t buy, that switching to CFL will not reduce CO2 emissions at all because CFLs don’t give off heat, so people will burn more oil and gas heating their houses.

This is bad policy. Even if you accept that looking to take out CO2 from the 14.4% of it that goes to household electricity makes sense, then looking at the 8.8% of that that goes to lighting is nuts. So when this law kicks in people will rise up and protest and force its repeal? I doubt it. Most people really like the idea of saving the planet and the fact that this particular way is a little bit of a sacrifice just makes it that more attractive. The best part is that it is so everyday. You get to remind yourself that you are saving the planet every time you see that funny looking bulb in your living room.

What this has to do with personal finance is that it is exactly the same dynamic as the idea that you can save your way into wealth by giving up a minor daily expense or two. Give up the lattes at Starbucks and you will be rich when you retire. The fact that the math doesn’t really work doesn’t stop millions of people from embracing the principle. Its attraction isn’t so much that you save money but that it’s something tangible that you can do starting tomorrow and everyday. As with the light bulbs, it is as if progress towards the actual goal is less important than maximizing the number of noticeable acts in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I’m buying light bulbs to stash in my basement. Look for them on eBay in 2014.


  • By Chuck, August 24, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I choose to use CFLs in my home to save money on electricity. I use incandescents in the dimmer fixture in my dining room. I also use them in my shed because they’re on for about 5 minutes at a time, and CFLs don’t work well where it’s cold and sometimes wet. And in the attic (CFLs will overheat there). And in the garage door opener (turns on and off too frequently for CFLs to survive). I suppose I will have to stock up on spare incandescent light bulbs soon. I’m as green as the next guy, but the federal ban is nuts.

  • By bex, August 24, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    Two observations…

    CFLs do indeed have mercury in them, but incandescent bulbs are the cause of more mercury pollution in general. Treehugger did the math:

    Also… using CFLs will almost certainly mean you’ll run your heaters more often. Although how much is left to debate. The issue is that incandescent bulbs are exceptionally efficient “radiant” heaters. Since they heat SURFACES and not AIR, you can actually feel quite warm under them when the air itself is very cool.

  • By Kathy Franklin, August 24, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    I stopped using incandescents a few years ago. They now come in warmer light colors, they last a long time so you hardly have to change them out and they really save on the electricity. The argument about losing the heat from them is strange. I don’t buy them to heat, I buy bulbs to light. Any extra heat generated means more work for my AC in summer. I had a few fixtures that I had to do a little searching on the internet to find bulbs to fit, but I do a lot of Internet shopping anyway. I take any used up bulbs (so far only 3 in 4 years of use) down to my local county household haz waste collection. And now Home Depot also takes them for recycling. The next wave of lighting technology, LEDs, is even more energy efficient. Americans hate change, I know, but we need to increase energy efficiency in everything.

  • By Will, August 24, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    In Georgia, you spend by far most of your energy trying to keep your house cool for 8 months of the year. I’ve had more than just a few Christmas’ with the A/C on. When reading or working on projects that require a lot of light the difference in heat from the lighting is obvious. The lights may be 70% more efficient, but for me not having up to 400 watts of heat (most of the energy from incandescent is in the form of heat) on in the room when I’m working makes a big difference.

    Your complaints come from a lack of product knowledge and display a general reluctance to change.

  • By Jim, August 24, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    CFL’s alone won’t save the planet, but thats not a good argument against them.

    CFL’s do save money and power. They’re a no brainer as far as I’m concerned.

    Yes incandescent bulbs put off heat. That heat can be a benefit or it can be a detrement.
    If you’re in a southern area then extra heat is BAD since it increases your AC costs. If you’re in a northern climate then the extra heat is good for a portion of the year, but either of no benefit or bad during the warmer months.

  • By George, August 24, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    Wow, this article is the best of Frank? The logic is poor and misunderstands the environmental and personal finance issue.

    1. CFLs are cheaper than incandescent bulbs if you take the basic step of including the cost of using the bulbs. Because of this truth, statements like “they cost about six times as much” are the kind of misleading and untruthful statements for which you regularly ridicule others.

    2. Global warming is going to require that we reduce emissions of global warming pollution severly and quickly. So far, the best evidence of our ability to do that is use all available technologies and drive down emissions in all sectors. Expecting all of the emission reduction to come from one place is unrealistic – a lot of different reductions and efficiencies will need to be found. Dismissing halving the 1.27% of our CO2 emissions as insignificant and therefore not worth the bother is remarkably short-sighted. Experts estimate that to reach a goal of reduction of 80% of CO2 emissons by 2050, we need to reduce emissions 2% a year. By implementing this existing and cost-saving technology we can quickly reduce emissions by a significant margin. That reduction gives us more time to find other technologies that can reduce emission further.

    Finally, you fixate on CFLs as the only alternative to incandescent bulbs. Fortunately, even better things are being invented and refined as we speak. I look forward to the day when I can put LED bulbs in my household fixures – the technology exists to give a warmer light than CFLs, that is dimmable, and that contains no mercury. And they are even more efficient.

  • By Neil, August 25, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    Re: CFL colour. I’m a lightbulb snob. CFLs come in many different colours, some of which are the same as incandescents, some are different. I actually really hate incandescents because the colour is so yellow, not an appealing option when 4 months of the sun is down whenever I’m at home. High temperature “daylight” bulbs have been a wonderful innovation making winter much more tolerable. The initially high cost of CFLs is generally offset by their longer lifespan.

    And if you really don’t like the spiral appearance, there are globe shaped CFLs available, as well as LED and other efficient bulbs that look more like what you’re used to.

    And as for the CO2 savings. There is no one thing that we can simply stop doing and will magically solve all of our pollution problems. A lot has been done already in terms of setting efficiency standards for appliances, vehicles and many others. Now it’s the light bulb’s turn. A half percent here, a half percent there, and eventually it adds up to something worth talking about.

    I dealt with the issue of lost heat in a recent blog post. ( End result – if light bulbs were a more efficient heater than your furnace, your home would be heated by banks of lights. Since it’s not, it’s a safe assumption that it is not more efficient to heat your house with lights.

    And finally, it’s not a ban. It’s an efficiency guideline. Like the one that your fridge and yes, your standalone freezer, already have to follow. There is research going on to increase the incandescent’s efficiency, something that wouldn’t have happenned without the guideline. A demonstration of good policy, where a new regulation is doing exactly what the new regulation was intended to do.

  • By Neil, August 25, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    Oh, and as for the latte thing. If you have a daily latte habit on a more or less median income, then the savings add to up something significant. The same principle applies to any number of small but frequent expenses where the true cost may be obscured because each instance is so small. Evaluating your lifestyle for these small things and picking two or three that aren’t really worth it to you can make a real difference to a person’s financial security.

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