Innovation in Incandescents

Lynne Kiesling

Want some evidence for why technology mandate legislation is fraught with difficulties? This New York Times article on innovation in incandescent light bulb technology is a datum:

When Congress passed a new energy law two years ago, obituaries were written for the incandescent light bulb. The law set tough efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2012, that no traditional incandescent bulb on the market could meet, and a century-old technology that helped create the modern world seemed to be doomed.

But as it turns out, the obituaries were premature.

The article goes on to describe the energy efficiency improvements in newly-designed incandescents, with the implication that the 2007 legislation mandating efficiency standards induced the innovation. Incandescent innovation is occurring in a very dynamic context, with simultaneous developments in compact fluorescents and LED lighting. As the NYT article notes,

Despite a decade of campaigns by the government and utilities to persuade people to switch to energy-saving compact fluorescents, incandescent bulbs still occupy an estimated 90 percent of household sockets in the United States. Aside from the aesthetic and practical objections to fluorescents, old-style incandescents have the advantage of being remarkably cheap.

But the cheapest such bulbs are likely to disappear from store shelves between 2012 and 2014, driven off the market by the government’s new standard. Compact fluorescents, which can cost as little as $1 apiece, may become the bargain option, with consumers having to spend two or three times as much to get the latest energy-efficient incandescents.

The reality is that we have this efficiency legislation, and by focusing on performance it’s better than an outright ban on incandescents, which would be incredibly distortionary, given the consumer welfare attached to the different light qualities and low price associated with incandescents (dimmable compacts anyone? Not so much.).

But I have to ask: isn’t this yet another situation in which we implement government regulation as a counterweight to the distortionary consequences of existing government regulation? If our individual electricity consumption were more transparent to us, and we had better and more timely information about the electricity consumption of the various appliances and systems in our buildings, AND if we had more accurately timely electricity pricing that wasn’t infused with state legislative social policy, would incandescent light bulbs have stayed this inefficient for this long? If we had those changes in the retail electricity industry, would we need Congressional energy efficiency legislation? How much energy efficiency improvement could we get through organic market processes, without the economic distortions and the restriction of individual autonomy that accompanies such government intervention?


7 thoughts on “Innovation in Incandescents

  1. I love the glow of Incandescent lightbulbs, I hate using anything else, It’s my decision to have somewhat less efficient light bulbs If I want to. Maybe the time and energy should be put into having more clean ways to make power, that way light bulb efficient won’t have to be an issue.

  2. But I have to ask: isn’t this yet another situation in which we implement government regulation as a counterweight to the distortionary consequences of existing government regulation?

    This is exactly how I feel about smart growth land use policies. If the state weren’t always so involved in prohibiting high density development, maybe they wouldn’t need to force it.

  3. In terms of government regulation correcting the excesses of government regulation, many of the problems with energy markets are not dut to the governement in the first place… they arise from the natural monopoly that utilities have. When an industry is dominated by natural monopolies, government regulation, as imperfect as it is, is the best we can hope for.

  4. Tom, in most states the utilities’ monopolies are state-chartered. While states that have deregulated leave the distribution (wires) as a “natural monopoly,” most of the problems associated with monopoly utilities tend to be the cost-based remuneration of generation investment, and undue discrimination when the utility that owns the wires also owns substantial (or all) generation. In each case the problem is due to state regulations preserving unnecessary monopolies in generation.

  5. Lynne
    RE “How much energy efficiency improvement could we get through organic market processes, without the economic distortions and the restriction of individual autonomy that accompanies such government intervention”

    We can also turn it around:
    Why do CFLs -and LEDs not have better advertising at how long they last?
    Think of batteries, “energizer bunnies”, washing up liquid advertising:
    Making nonsense of the claim that “noone will voluntarily buy CFLs because they are too expensive” – people would buy them if they were good enough – and if they advertised the fact – just like othwer expensive alternatives.
    In turn, that would perhaps push ordinary light bulbs longwevity improvement etc:
    As long as alternatives are perceived weak, why should incandescents improve?

    This is also the tragedy of banning them:
    They would also improve, with better competition.

    Some other general points:
    Americans choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 9 times out of 10.
    Banning what Americans want gives the supposed savings – no point in banning an impopular product!

    If new LED lights -or improved CFLs- are good,
    people will buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
    If they are not good, people will not buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
    The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes had to be banned… they were bought less anyway.

    All lights have their advantages
    The ordinary simple light bulb has for many people a pleasing appearance, it responds quickly with bright broad spectrum light, is easy to use with dimmers and other equipment, can come in small sizes, and has safely been used for over 100 years.

    100 W+ equivalent brightness is a particular issue – difficult and expensive with both fluorescents and LEDS – yet such incandescent bulbs are apparently first in line for banning (as in the EU)!

    There are also problems in achieving small size bright bulbs with fluorescents and LEDS, while halogens, related to ordinary bulbs are only slightly more efficient, and will gradually be phased out too given the proposed efficiency limits.

    In any case:
    Since when does America need to save on electricity?
    There is no energy shortage, there are plenty of local energy sources, Middle East oil is not used for electricity generation.
    Consumers pay for any power stations, just as they do for factories and shops generally.
    Certainly it is good to let people know how they can save energy and money – but why force them to do it?

    Emissions?
    OK: Does a light bulb give out any gases?
    Power stations might not either:
    In Washington state practically all electricity is emission-free, while around half of it is in states like New York and California.
    Why should emission-free Seattle, New York and Los Angeles households there be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
    Low emission households will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology or energy substitution.

    Also, the savings amounts can be questioned for many reasons:
    For a referenced list of reasons against light bulb bans, see
    http://www.ceolas.net/#li1ax onwards

Comments are closed.