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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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$4 is Government Waste
By zephyrwind69 on 1/25/2011 8:52:05 PM , Rating: 2
To chime in with others here this is a VAST amount of government waste at work. I live in Texas and have bought nothing but CFLs for the last 3-4 years. The monetary argument made sense as they save money not just on electrical usage but in a hot Texas summer they run cooler resulting in a double savings via less A/C usage. I just wait until they're on sale for 4/$5, or $1.25 each, and stock up. This is a perfect example of government waste. Millions for the study, millions of revenue from PG&E (not that I own stock or believe they're saints), and how many millions from taxpayers?

Why not just let free market economics rule?

On the lifetime argument, I have experienced similar lifetimes of other posters @ 2-3 years and have noted that electrical stability (e.g. clean, non-fluctuating power) and the relative use of on/off frequency are huge factors in the lifetime of the bulb.

Lights that stay on for long durations like the living room; well, they've not been touched in 4+ years.

RE: $4 is Government Waste
By MadDogMorgan on 1/25/2011 11:23:22 PM , Rating: 2
Totally agree with you about the Govt waste. Why on earth do we need govt rebates (MY TAX DOLLARS) to fund something that the free market would do for ... FREE?

I have also noticed an interesting trend where the CFL lights I leave on the longest hours continuous per day also last the longest in calendar years. My exterior night-lights are on all night, every night, but yet last the longest in years of service. Not more than 2 or 3 years. I had assumed it was because they are outside in the cool air. I assumed heat to be the quickest killer of CFL's. Most of mine in interior lights are lucky to last 2 years but the most exposed ones, the coolest I assume, seem to last longer.

On a related note, just how we are going to save ourselves into a surplus of electricity when we have a constantly growing demand for it, such as electric cars, is beyond me. Maybe govt's and utilities should be spending money on new sources of electricity that produce power at the cheapest cost? Such as Dams, and Nuclear power plants? Spending scarce money on the most expensive forms of power production makes no sense at all. Oh wait, yep, that's government for you.

RE: $4 is Government Waste
By Skywalker123 on 1/26/2011 3:21:08 AM , Rating: 2
We need more nuclear, but dams cause too much environmental damage.

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