Bulb Wars: Fluorescent versus Incandescent

If a California assemblyman gets his way, the Golden State would be the first jurisdiction in the world to ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs in favor of replacement technologies, primarily compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs)–although LED light bulbs, which are more energy efficient than fluorescents and lack their color-emission drawbacks, may be similarly priced in the coming years as well.

Clearly whether fluorescents are acceptable substitutes for the traditional bulb is a matter of taste: both James and Megan McArdle hate them, but Glenn Reynolds seems happy enough with his. They’ve seemed to be fine in hotel rooms where I’ve encountered them in recent years.

That digression aside, however, there’s a big difference between Wal-Mart’s decision to promote the CFL bulbs and requiring consumers to buy them. If California and other states want to deal with their energy woes in a sensible way, ensuring customers have to pay the full cost of electricity (rather than holding rates down with utility regulations) and incentivising the purchase of CFLs and LEDs–as utilities have subsidized the conversion of most of America’s traffic signals from incandescent bulbs to LEDs to save energy–would be far better approaches than an outright ban on incandescents.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, , , , ,
Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Maggie says:

    Smoking, trans fats, light bulbs.


    Is nothing sacred in your OWN HOME? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  2. You’re absolutely right that making consumers pay the full cost of electricity would lead to greater energy conservation. But that would mean the government would have to give up some power, which doesn’t often happen. And if it did, the usual suspects would be whining about “big utilities.” Sadly, most people believe that government has all the answers.

  3. The Thomas says:

    I have yet to see a fluorescent theatre light.

    I wonder how Hollywood is going to deal with that, or are they more equal than ordinary households?

  4. Anderson says:

    I fail to see the problem. If CA’s voters want to limit their choices this way, who has a problem with that? And if they don’t, they can replace their legislators accordingly.

    Some commentators seem opposed to the notion of “law” in general, inasmuch as laws don’t let us do whatever we want.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Are fluorescents really more energy-efficient (from raw materials through utilization) than incandescents? Are they environmentally more friendly? Unless those things are known with confidence the result could be perverse.

    Does the state of California use exclusively fluorescents now? If not perhaps a good start might be to do so before banning incandescents.

  6. James Joyner says:

    If CA’s voters want to limit their choices this way, who has a problem with that?

    The argument, presumably, is that this sort of thing is outside the res publica. Simply because 50% plus one is in favor of something does not mean it should therefore be the law.

  7. jwb says:

    There is not even 50% +1 in this case. There’s no point in making a big stink about all the crazy ideas that singular assembly members cook up. The Assembly is a large body with many members. A profusion of stupid ideas is to be expected. They never pass.

  8. floyd says:

    anderson…. or is it polyanna??

  9. floyd says:

    the public pays way more than the full cost of electricity. to quote ray ansell “ya know liars may figger , but figgers don’t lie”.

  10. Bithead says:

    Personally, I use arc lamps.

    The other question, of course, is whether are not such a law would prevent better technologies from being used. The law of unintended consequences would seem to apply here.

    And Anderson, that you can ask such a question speaks loudly to my mind that you have no concept much less any love, of the rights of the individual.

  11. Anderson says:

    “No concept of the rights of the individual” over light bulbs?

    Man, I am so glad there was no internet when leaded gas went out.

  12. Steven Plunk says:


    I see your point that it seems some are against all laws, all the time. But in this case I think it goes back to the idea that government should have certain enumerated powers. Intruding into all facets of private life should be looked upon with suspicion by both conservatives and liberals. The issues may be different but both ends of the political spectrum fear that bureaucrat lording over us.

  13. Anderson says:

    I certainly agree, SP, but I can see a reasonable policy decision along these lines:

    (1) the new bulbs are functionally adequate to replace the old;

    (2) they use substantially less electricity;

    (3) requiring their use will decrease electricity use, which is a Good Thing.

    Legislatures make calls like that all the time, and I don’t understand what about this particular instance is getting anyone’s panties in a wad.

    As for “enumerated powers,” I don’t know what California’s constitution provides for in that respect, but I notice the conspicuous absence of any discussions thereof in this thread.

  14. Ben W says:

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    Clearly, no one involved with this proposal has any practical knowledge of how these lights work. Fluorescent bulbs, including compact fluorescent bulbs, don’t actually emit steady illumination, but a series of flashes far too fast for the eye to see. this is fine for Most purposes, but not all.
    Try using a fluorescent light around machinery, like a lathe, and you soon may be missing body parts, as the strobe effect can fool you into thinking somethings not moving. I watch this happen in high school shop when someone didn’t turn on the incandescent light on the lath, using only the classroom fluorescent, they ended up loosing 2 fingers

  15. floyd says:

    Fear of bureaucrats? Heck; Monty Python had to go off the air because it became impossible to parody bureaucrats!

  16. Gerry Beauregard says:

    Banning incandescent bulbs seems awfully extreme. Anyone who cares about their electricity bills and can do basic math will realize that compact fluorescent bulbs pay for themselves pretty quickly.

    The modern ones look great too – the “warm white” models I use have very nearly the same colour as incandescents, and I’ve never noticed any flicker – not like conventional overhead fluo tubes, whose flicker drives me nuts.

    Here in Singapore, incandescents and fluorescents are both readily available. This in a country where chewing gum is banned! Most people buy fluorescents, not because of legislation or any desire to save the environment, but rather because it’s much, much cheaper.

    With the electricity rates here (about US$0.14 / kWh), replacing a 100W incandescent with a US$5 20W compact fluorescent saves about US$100 over its ~10000 hour life. It’s a no brainer, regardless of whether you care about the environment!

    Rather than legislate, perhaps the utilities could provide a service to sell bulbs (and maybe even come to your house to screw them in), and have consumers pay for them in installments, say, over the course of 6 months via their utility bills. Over the first 6 months, the installments & energy savings would cancel out; afterwards, the utility bills would drop noticeably. Who would argue with that?