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The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa gave away free CFL bulbs, while on the campaign trail in 2009.  (Source: Getty Images)

CFL lightbulbs are burning out 3 years faster than originally expected, disappointing Californian regulators.  (Source: Paul Swansen/Flickr)

Less customers are buying CFL bulbs than expected, despite tax incentives that total nearly 3 dollars per bulb, cutting the price to one third the standard MSRP.  (Source: Walmart Corporate)
State government concludes that it will not realize the savings it expected

It was all flowers and roses when the state of California launched its $548M USD program to help promote consumer use of compact fluorescent lamps.  Manufacturers and utilities were onboard because they received bonus pay to enact rebate programs.  Citizens were happy as they received cheap CFL bulbs, which promised to save them money on power expenses.  And the politicians were happy, as they looked sufficiently "green" to satisfy the eco-minded voters.

Now that utopian vision of futuristic lighting has dissolved into rancor and disappointment.  A multi-million dollar program by the state designed to evaluate the actual results has concluded that energy savings were not as good as expected and that utilities were being over-rewarded for their performance.

At the heart of the problems is the fact that utility provider Pacific Gas & Electricity Corp (PG&E) has forced to cut estimates of CFL life average lifetimes from 9.3 years in 2006 to 6.3 years.  The shorter-than-expected lifetime was due largely to people turning CFL lights on and off, and the fact that CFL bulbs were often put in disadvantageous locations like bathrooms or recessed lighting.

The state studies say that the shorter lifetimes led to the utility missing its proposed energy cuts.  PG&E disagrees, claiming it narrowly made the targets.  Now state regulators are left to argue whether to award the utility its expected bonus pay.

Another thing working against PG&E is that, despite its up-front investment of $92M USD for a CFL rebate program, fewer bulbs were sold, fewer were screwed in, and they saved less energy than PG&E anticipated.  While Californians only pay $1.30 for the subsidized bulbs versus $4 in states where they were not subsidized, the citizens didn't all seem interested in jumping on board and moving away from traditional incandescent lighting.

One headache for utilities is that they are only rewarded for the energy saved by customers who, when surveyed, say they would not have otherwise purchased the bulbs.  

Still, for all PG&E's complaining, it did receive $104M USD from two rounds of funding ($143.7M USD initially, and $68M USD in December 2010) -- more than its rebate program, which it has not even completed.

The California government is now considering switching from rewarding utilities based on energy savings, to rewarding them based on the amount of adoption.  Many, including some utilities, argue that the switch would simplify the accounting process for everyone and reduce the penalties for cooperating utilities if, outside their control, the products fail to deliver the expected savings.

The aftermath of the California CFL mess is perhaps, just a sign of things to come.  California, the leading state in promoting CFLs, began phasing out incandescent light bulbs on January 1.  Next year the rest of the nation will follow.  By 2014, incandescent light bulbs will be gone from shelves, for better or worse.

The transition is a win for one party, at least -- China.  Chinese manufacturers produced the vast majority of the 100 million CFLs installed in California since 2006.

Worldwide, many nations, rich and poor are also eyeing major CFL campaigns.  The World Bank, as part of its charitable efforts, donated away five million CFL light bulbs in Bangladesh in one day alone.  Its also giving away CFL bulbs in many other nations in an effort to make lighting more affordable in impoverished nations. 

CFL lighting will likely eventually be replaced by LED lamps, which are currently almost prohibitively expensive, but offer even longer lifetimes.



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RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Exodite on 1/25/2011 4:58:16 PM , Rating: 2
So basically bulbs last shorter than the theoretical ideal when in actual use?

Shocker.

I always found the quoted lifetime of lightbulbs to be moderately interesting trivia at best, as the vast majority of bulbs are killed by things other than "natural causes".

Most popular example: power spikes and dirty current/lines.

For this reason I'd expect LED lights to actually get closer to the ideal, as they should be less prone to malfunction from a short power spike.

*shrug* Time will tell I suppose.


RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By VahnTitrio on 1/26/2011 11:41:12 AM , Rating: 2
When these are tested for lifetime they should be subjected to "typical use conditions". Recessed lighting will trap some heat, which always will decrease your lifetime. Normal on/off cycling should have been used. It actually should be pretty trivial for something like a lightbulb.

Now typical use conditions for something people have in their hands, good luck emulating "typical use conditions". I can do a market trial on a product and people always seem to manage to break million+ cycle materials in less than a week. It never ceases to amaze me.


RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By mindless1 on 1/31/2011 2:16:39 AM , Rating: 2
No, it is unrealistic to think LED lights will be less subject to power spike damage. The power spike fries the switching transsistors, a not so different topology than that used in decent LED lighting drivers (albeit that in CCFL it is a voltage boost circuit while in LED a buck circuit but nevertheless you still have transistors subject to excessive voltage from the spike).


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