Tax season is coming up—invest in a few compact fluorescent light bulbs

Australia made news around the world this week by announcing an imminent ban on a cherished piece of Victorian technology: the incandescent light bulb. Now other governments, including California’s and Ontario’s, are considering a similar initiative. And in Ontario, at least, the opposition isn’t trying to halt the plan—John Tory is castigating the Liberals for taking their time.

And what’s not to like about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)? In Australia, they expect the ban to result in a cut in greenhouse gas emissions of 4 million tonnes. In Ontario, it looks as though a move away from incandescent bulbs would cut electricity demand by the equivalent of the generating capacity of one coal-fired plant.

However, there will always be objectors (this is axiomatic—if there are still, somehow, people out there with doubts that human CO2 emissions are causing global warming, we shouldn’t be surprised that compact fluorescent light bulbs have their detractors). What is heartening here is that the objections are so easily dealt with.The first is that CFLs are just too expensive. A more sophisticated, but equally misguided, form of this argument is that a ban on incandescents unfairly burdens those who spend a high percentage of their income on energy—that is, poor people. Apart from the fact that a planet threatened by climate change affects the poor at least as much as the rich, this argument against CFLs has got the economic view completely upside down.

To borrow an argument from engineer William Kemp’s book, Smart Power: An urban guide to renewable energy and efficiency, not only do compact fluorescents not cost money—they provide a better return on investment than the stock market.

Let’s look at it this way. Let’s say a CFL costs about $3 and an incandescent is about 40 cents. It looks at first as though the CFL is expensive, but it’s not that simple. A fluorescent lasts more than ten times longer than an incandescent, so over the life of the bulb the CFL is already cheaper ($3 versus the $4 for ten incandescents). In other words, fluorescents save money.

But it gets much better. Let’s say you spend 12 cents per KWh. As Kemp argues, over the 10,000 hours of the bulb’s life, you’ll save $92 in electricity costs. (The CFL will cost $27.60; the incandescent $120.) Since the average house has 25 light bulbs in it, the average savings will be in the order of $2,300. (That’s $2,300 you won’t pay tax on, either.) Try getting that kind of return on the stock market, particularly when the initial investment is guaranteed.

In other words, CFLs don’t put a financial burden on anyone, except the people who continue to flog steam-age technology. Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, you’re going to make money installing compact fluorescents.

Now, what was the second objection? First, let’s put it in perspective. We’re talking about technology that can cut household electricity bills by 60% and greenhouse gas emissions by 1.3 tonnes (and acid rain-causing compounds by 92 kg). That’s the equivalent of taking 4.3 cars off the road—per household. In other words, we’re talking about something pretty promising. And what is the downside? Some CFLs don’t work well with dimmer switches!

I’m sorry, but that is no objection at all. We’ve got a planet to save. Working out the caprices of our mood-lighting shouldn’t be a real problem.

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