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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 Parhel on 1/25/2011 5:05:38 PM , Rating: 2
But, CFL bulbs have gotten so cheap lately it almost doesn't matter. I bought a bunch of 60W equivalents at Menards a few months ago at 3 for $1.00. That's cheaper than incandescents.

FWIW, I've put in probably 50 to 60 over the last five years, replacing all the bulbs in my old home and then recently in my new home. We've only had three of them die. One of those died just a few hours after I installed it. The the other two died after maybe three years of use. Not perfect, but not too shabby.

I'm not sure how much money I've saved, if any, but I really like not having to replace bulbs as often. Something about the wiring in my old house, I guess, but I was replacing light bulbs constantly until I switched to CFL bulbs.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By omnicronx on 1/25/2011 5:40:52 PM , Rating: 1
It certainly does matter.. Do you have any idea how much lead is contained within CFLs?

The only reason nobody ever made a fuss is because they were suppose to last so much longer than incandescent light-bulbs. The result being the higher lead content was diminished by the fact you are losing far fewer bulbs.

It also takes in the area of 400-600% more energy to create a CFL in the first place.

Not that this is anything new.. All of this was outlined long before we started the shift to CFL's...

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Parhel on 1/25/2011 7:02:01 PM , Rating: 2
Whatever amount of energy it takes to make one, I'm sure it's factored into the cost, like anything else in this world. If the TCO for a CFL bulb is lower than an incandescent, then it makes sense, and I'm in. Otherwise, I'm not.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Dr of crap on 1/26/2011 8:48:01 AM , Rating: 2
If you shop Menards, why are you paying more than 3 for a $1 for incandescents?

I get a box of 4 for $1 at Menards all the time!

It's time I stock up for 2014, and wait out the price drop of LED's!

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Nutzo on 1/26/2011 4:28:22 PM , Rating: 2
But, CFL bulbs have gotten so cheap lately it almost doesn't matter. I bought a bunch of 60W equivalents at Menards a few months ago at 3 for $1.00. That's cheaper than incandescents.

If I had to pay $4 a bulb, I doubt I would have replaced most my lights. instead I've paid as little as 4/$1 for CFL's (thanks to PG&E). Brands do make difference. Most my Lights of America ones died in less than a year, so it's the only brand I avoid.

Replacing most my lights with CFL's did lower the amount of electicity I use, but since they raised the rates, my cost actually went up.

LED light are a good solution if the prices will come down. I've switch the kids night light to LED. Much better at <.5 watts instead of the 3 watt bulb.

Had LED christmas lights the last few years an hardly noticed the increase in electricity for December. Plus they don't break like the mini (glass) light do when dropped.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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