Outlawing incandescent bulbs and unintended consequences

 

TThe mens room at the Washington Examiner recently received an energy-saving device: a motion sensor switch for the lights. In Europe, every public accomodation I visited had timed lights or motion-sensor lights in the bathrooms. I bet they pay for themselves in energy savings.

But the Examiner men's room also has fluorescent bulbs — both the compact fluorescent and the old-fashioned tube ones. The CFLs take a second to turn on, and about 30 seconds to get to full brightness. The tube bulbs take about 15 seconds to stay on, and they flicker for another 30 seconds.

Either technology on its own is acceptable, but together, they make visiting the bathroom very annoying. In other words, the slow warm up for the fluorescents wouldn't matter if it happened once or twice a day, and the room being dark when you walk in wouldn't matter if the lights were bright right away. If a coffee shop or library I visited had similar bathroom action, I wouldn't return.

So as California outlaws the traditional incandescent next week, and the U.S. begins its move down this road a year later, we should ask, will forcing fluorescents on people deter them from getting timed or motion-sensor lights? If so, will the energy savings of this legislation be wiped out?

There are plenty of other unintended consequences related to the lightbulb law that will offset the gains in energy efficiency. Off the top of my head:

  • Citing this law, GE has closed its incandescent plant in Virginia. For the coming years, while they're still legal, Americans then will be buying their GE incandescents from Mexico. This probably means less efficient manufacturing and more shipping.
  • GE makes its CFLs in China. The factories are likely dirtier and less efficient, and certainly there will be more shipping costs.
  • Because of the warmup time for CFLs and the knowledge that they use less energy, people are more likely to leave them on for longer, I imagine.
  • In northern latitudes, incandescents' inefficiency is not wasted. Think about it, in Alaska, summer nights are very short, and winter nights are very long. That means a vast majority of light-bulb time happens in the winter. The incandescents waste energy in the form of heat, but if it's cold, that added heat slightly reduces your need to use a furnace.

These offsetting factors are all small, and they may not negate the energy savings of the federal and California laws, but they will certainly reduce the savings. All corners of environmental policy have similar offsets — think ethanol subsidies leading to deforestation, or electric car subsidies driving up coal demand. On top of these predictable effects, there are plenty of negative consequences we can't foresee.

These unintended consequences are why I think that simpler, dumber tariffs and taxes would be better than this hodgepodge of subsidies we have now. If we want Americans to use less energy, create a BTU tax. If we want to use less foreign oil, put a tariff on oil.

But then, what would the lobbyists do if things were simple?

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