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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 ClownPuncher on 1/25/2011 5:12:20 PM , Rating: 3
I feel we wouldn't have had a Mad Hatter without it, what's your beef with mercury poisoning?

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By AEvangel on 1/25/2011 5:26:41 PM , Rating: 5
The CFL have a small amount of mercury in them and have to be disposed of a in a specific manor.

You watch 20 years from now there where be a huge issue with mercury poisoning in all aquifers in America because no one disposed of their CFL lights correctly.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By sprockkets on 1/25/2011 5:56:01 PM , Rating: 4
The Home Depot where I live takes them back for free.

Not sure about yours, but they probably all do it now.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By sprockkets on 1/25/2011 6:14:13 PM , Rating: 2
The Home Depot where I live takes them back for free.

Not sure about yours, but they probably all do it now.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Souka on 1/25/2011 6:20:39 PM , Rating: 3
Actually you're more mercury is released throguh the burning of coal to produce additioanl the energy required by an incadencent (65W vs 23W).

In July 2008 the US EPA published a data sheet stating that the net system emission of mercury for CFL lighting was lower than for incandescent lighting of comparable lumen output. This was based on the average rate of mercury emission for US electricity production and average estimated escape of mercury from a CFL put into a landfill.[51] Coal-fired plants also emit other heavy metals, sulphur, and carbon dioxide.


RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Philippine Mango on 1/25/2011 8:19:28 PM , Rating: 3
a 23w CFL is more like the equivalent of 100w incandescent, NOT a 60w incandescent. A 60w Incandescent would be more like 13-15w CFL... Had to point this out.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Souka on 1/26/2011 11:31:54 AM , Rating: 3

I run my house mostly on incadecent... I'm in the NW and keep the house cool. The incadecent lights are like small heaters in each room...and thus I "heat" the room I'm in because the lights are on :)

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Philippine Mango on 1/28/2011 3:35:47 PM , Rating: 2
It's more cost effective to heat a room with natural gas than to use electricity (heat from light bulbs or space heaters) and since you probably have PGE, you probably pay through the nose for electricity.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By mindless1 on 1/31/2011 2:08:58 AM , Rating: 2
Not necessarily! Once you factor that A) CCFL and LED bulbs still use electricity, B) Both types of bulb cost more if you're not paying someone to swap them, C) You have lights on in the rooms you are in so you can turn down the central heating thermostat, putting the heat where you are when you are there, letting other rooms drop in temperature a bit.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By mariush on 1/26/2011 7:10:51 PM , Rating: 2
They have as much mercury in them as you would ingest by eating a can of tuna every day for about two months. Over the course of your life, you're getting about 10-20 times the amount of mercury inside your body from car exhaust and other food items.

You really don't need to be so careful with them, like that document says.

Just pick up the broken glass, get a wet paper towel so you can suck the very small glass shards from the carpet and the white powder that was inside the bulb and keep the windows open for a few minutes. It's not rocket science.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Alexvrb on 1/27/2011 12:43:48 AM , Rating: 2
Tell that to hazmat. In fact, next time you break one, call hazmat over to show them your awesome technique. If they don't have you naked and hosed down within 10 minutes of witnessing your CFL capers, I'll refund your money.

On a serious note, a single bulb broken is not that big a deal. But collectively, all the improperly disposed of bulbs will pollute quite a bit over the years.

Bottom line, CFLs suck. I'll take conventional incandescent, halogen, and LED instead, depending on application. LED prices will get there, eventually.

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