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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 mwpotter on 1/25/2011 5:29:37 PM , Rating: 2
The point is that the way these bulbs are made is horrible for the environment. If you break one in your house it can definitely harm you and your family. Heck the EPA had to creat a standard on how to clean them up. The amount of mercury that these things will eventually put into the environment is ridiculous. LED lighting is the only clean way to lower your energy use.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By fic2 on 1/25/2011 6:00:21 PM , Rating: 3
The amount of mercury these things put into the environment is less than 1/4 what an incandescent bulb powered by a coal power plant will put into the environment. About 1.2 mg vs 5.5 mg. If the bulb ends up in a landfill it becomes about 1.6 vs. 5.5 mg.

Now, if you happen to get your electricity from a non-coal power plant this doesn't apply.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By mindless1 on 1/31/2011 2:12:25 AM , Rating: 2
That is an argument not to produce power from coal, not that we can downplay new ways to contaminate the environment.

Further, there are lots of other components in a CCFL, even if "some" CCFLs are recycled that does not mean 100% of the bulb components are.

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Souka on 1/25/2011 7:10:40 PM , Rating: 3
Glad you quoted the EPA. Here's another quote

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.


Breaking a CFL in the home is hopefully a rare event, and one you can control. Breathing the air is something hard to control...

RE: Bathroom, Recessed lighting
By Schrag4 on 1/26/2011 9:28:59 AM , Rating: 2
The amount of mercury that these things will eventually put into the environment is ridiculous.

You're right. We should stop importing mercury from outer space at once! We should only use naturally occurring elements in our light bulbs!!!

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