Lit Up for the Holidays? CF, Diode or Incandescent?

December 23, 2011

Editors:  Next week’s column is released early to accomodate holiday publication schedules (546 words)

Light is a central component of the religious holidays that we celebrate this time of year. As the days shorten and the cold weather comes upon us, our faith traditions pay homage to the divine light that affirms our highest hopes. On a secular note, worldly sources of lighting have become a political football.

On one hand, environmentalist and progressives tout the benefits of compact fluorescent (CF) and light-emitting diode (LED) sources of lighting over the traditional incandescent bulb. One hundred hours of lighting from a 100-watt incandescent bulb uses 10 kilowatt watt hours (kwh) of electricity while the same lighting from a CF bulb uses only 2.5 kwh. Because reducing energy use is a central goal of the environmental-progressive alliance, it is axiomatic that CF bulbs are superior to the old-fashioned incandescent ones. Only an idiot would use an incandescent bulb, in their view. And this crowd sees nothing wrong with legislating against idiocy, especially to stem climate change. They support banning the incandescent bulb.

Not so fast, cry a coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The CF bulbs contain mercury, a known environmental hazard, and they emit light that some find inferior to that from incandescent bulbs. And in any case, on principle, it is none of the government’s dang business what kind of light bulbs get produced.

On the political issue, this writer agrees with the latter perspective. Nevertheless, his household has embraced non-incandescent lighting with gusto, but not for the reason our environmental-progressive friends proclaim.  At 10 cents a kilowatt hour, one hundred hours of lighting from a 100-watt incandescent bulb costs $1, while the same lighting cost only 25 cents from a CF bulb.  As saving money is a central goal of the Bohanon-Alvarez household, it is axiomatic that CF bulbs are superior to the old-fashioned incandescent ones. No legislation required.

But another irony emerges. The other night, with family safely packed off to bed, I left my office and noted the beauty of our Christmas tree illuminated with the new low-energy LED lights. Why not cheer up some late-night straggler or the paper boy with the glow of the season and leave the lights on all night? After all, the LED bulbs make the cost of such a gesture of goodwill only a fraction of what it was last year.

A fundamental economic insight, the law of demand, now comes into play: Because lighting costs go down when low-energy-using lighting sources are adopted, lighting use will surely rise. If CF or LED bulbs generate a 75 percent reduction in lighting costs and lighting use rises by more than 75 percent, electricity consumption actually rises. I suspect a 75 percent reduction in lighting costs typically increase lighting use by less than 75 percent. So even though there are net energy savings from CF and LED adoption, the savings will be a lot less than 75 percent.

Our environmental-progressive friends, then, have one more thing to worry about. We classical liberals, meanwhile, sleep well at night (with our lights on) because we get the best of all worlds — more lighting, less energy use and savings to boot. We also know that environmental problems are not solved by the mandates and central directives our well-meaning, environmental-progressive friends dream up.

Now that is a point of light.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at


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