Forbes Joins Fight Against Money-Saving Light Bulbs

In a column for Forbes magazine, Steve Forbes endorsed Republicans' proposal to repeal light bulb efficiency standards signed into law by President Bush in 2007 and attempted to debunk the fact that compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) save consumers money by using less energy. However, tests have shown that CFLs can save households money even under the least ideal conditions.

Forbes Attempts To Debunk Fact That CFLs Save Households Money

Forbes: “Politicians Assure Us That Consumers Will Ultimately Save Money Because CFLs Will Last Longer. But They Might Not.” From the Forbes column:

This prohibition of the standard lightbulb is justified on the grounds that it will save energy. Well, if that were true, don't you think consumers would figure it out for themselves? The chief replacement is the compact fluorescent lamp (CFLs)--those things that look like frozen pasta. They will cost six to ten times the amount of the old bulbs, but Washington politicians assure us that consumers will ultimately save money because CFLs will last longer.

But they might not. Warns expert Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute: “Cost savings are exaggerated. First, the [new] bulbs are tested under ideal conditions. Some household uses approximate these ideal conditions. Most do not. For example, if you turn a light on and off a lot, such as a bathroom light, you will save very little electricity because CFLs use a lot of electricity to start up. Second, CFLs tend not to last as long as advertised. Therefore, you end up replacing CFLs before they have achieved the savings needed to make up the [cost] difference [of the old-fashioned bulb].” [Forbes, 3/28/11]

Tests Show That CFLs Save Money Even If Turned On And Off Frequently

DOE: “Most CFLs Pay For Themselves With The Energy They Save In Less Than 9 Months.” The Department of Energy states:

Upgrading 15 traditional incandescent bulbs in your home with energy-saving bulbs could save you about $50 per year.

While the initial price of the newer light bulbs is typically higher than the inefficient incandescent bulbs you are replacing, you'll spend less each year to operate them. Most CFLs pay for themselves with the energy they save in less than 9 months.

Average consumers will spend about $4.80 to operate a traditional incandescent bulb for a year (electricity cost). By comparison, average consumers will spend about $1.00 to operate an ENERGY STAR LED bulb, about $3.50 on a halogen incandescent bulb, and about $1.20 on an ENERGY STAR CFL bulb -- each that produces about the same amount of light.

Also, an ENERGY STAR CFL bulb will typically last up to 10 times longer and an ENERGY STAR qualified LED bulb will last as much as 25 times longer than an incandescent bulb with the same light output (or lumens). Since the newer bulbs typically last longer, you have to replace them less frequently. Even with higher upfront purchase price added in, energy saving halogen incandescents, LEDs, and CFLs remain less expensive to consumers over the life of the individual bulb. [DOE,, accessed 3/23/11]

Study: CFL Bulb “Pays For Itself” Even If You Turn It On And Off Every 5 Minutes. In a 2008 study analyzing the life-cycle of compact fluorescent light bulbs the Rocky Mountain Institute concluded that “while rapid on-off cycling of the lamp does reduce the environmental (and payback) benefits of CFLs they remain a net 'win.'” The study further stated:

If the cycle time of the light in question is reduced from 1 hour to 15 minutes, then the relative CO2e [Carbon dioxide equivalent] savings are reduced 14 percent. If the cycling time is further reduced from 15 minutes to 5 minutes, the relative CO2e savings are reduced by 19 percent. Even with a cycle time of 5 minutes, CFLs still save 63.4 percent of of the CO2e emitted from incandescents. The environmental impact from CFLs is dramatically smaller than incandescents for all operating cycles.

Though CFLs with reduced cycle times are clearly net winners in terms of the CO2e impact the reduced cycle time will have a more significant impact on the economic savings associated with CFLs. An incandescent lamp comparable to the one used in this study currently costs $0.55. Applying the three-to-ten cost factor described in Table 1, a comparable CFL (similar to the one used in this study) costs in the range of $1.65-$5.50. Assuming an on-time of 4 hours/day and a cost of electricity in the range of $0.0492-0.118/kWh (average $0.089/kWh), the lamp will always pay for itself in energy savings.

As the cost per kWh of electricity changes, so does the payback period for the CFL. The following graph shows the relationship between payback and cost per kWh. As the cost of electricity decreases, the payback period gets longer. In the worst case scenario--at 1,500 hours of lamp life (assuming 5-minute on-cycles that result in 15 percent of the 10,000 hour rated lamp life) and the cheapest electricity cost--the lamp still pays for itself, but by the smallest of margins.


There is also a relationship between payback time and the capital cost of the CFL--more expensive lamps, clearly, have longer payback periods. In all scenarios the CFL pays for itself prior to lamp failure.


The ability of a CFL to pay for itself through energy savings decreases as lamp life gets shorter, with low electricity costs, and with high lamp costs. Wal-Mart and Philips are working on initiatives to expand production and bring lamp costs down, which would shorten consumers' payback periods. [Rocky Mountain Institute, March 2008, in-text citations deleted for clarity]

Energy Saving Trust Spokesman: Turning CFLs On And Off Frequently “Would Be Quite An Unusual Way To Operate Your Lights.” According to a Telegraph article about the lifespan of CFL bulbs:

A spokesman for the EST said: “Regularly flicking a bulb on for a brief moment and then off again is not recommended as it can shorten the lifetime of the bulb.

”The reason is that the electronics in a CFL's ballast need time to charge up and interrupting this process can reduce the lifetime of these components.

“However this would be quite an unusual way to operate your lights.”

The spokesman added that all bulbs approved by the EST must maintain their lifespan during tests involving “thousands of on/off cycles”. [The Telegraph, 9/1/09]

Consumer Reports: CFLs “Have Been Cycling On And Off” For “6,000 Hours” While Incandescents Last “Only Around 1,000 Hours.” Consumer reports reported in October 2010:

Our tests found that there's no shortage of inexpensive, money-saving, energy-efficient CFLs. Most delivered on brightness and many provided color that was closer to incandescents' than earlier versions. And all of the tested bulbs had significantly less than 5 milligrams of mercury, the cap that Energy Star sets for those bulbs. Still, CFLs should be recycled.

Here's what else we learned:

CFLs keep burning brightly

The bulbs in our labs have been cycling on and off since early 2009, or 6,000 hours. For comparison, a typical incandescent bulb lasts only around 1,000 hours. Even after all that time, brightness and warm-up times remained virtually the same as after 3,000 hours of testing. Our results were confirmed by an outside lab. [Consumer Reports, October 2010]

Forbes Fearmongers About Risk Of Mercury Exposure From CFLs

Forbes: The Bigger Problem With CFLs Is That They Contain “Mercury, A Poison.” From Forbes' column:

There's an even bigger problem: mercury, a poison. Heaven help you if you break one of these things. The EPA has numerous instructions on what you're supposed to do when this happens.


The EPA also has bulletins on what to do when the bulb burns out.

You can't make this stuff up.

Congress should promptly pass legislation introduced by Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex.) to repeal this dangerous, anti-free-market piece of idiocy. [Forbes, 3/28/11]

Product Safety Group: “If Disposed Of Properly, Mercury In CFLs Shouldn't Be A Safety Hazard.” According to a report on CFLs and mercury from product safety certification organization, Underwriters Laboratories:

Myth - The contents of CFLs are bad for people and the environment.

Truth - CFLs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing - approximately 5 milligrams - a hundred times less mercury than found in a single old-style glass thermometer. No mercury is released when the lamps are intact or in use and if disposed of properly, mercury in CFLs shouldn't be a safety hazard. [Underwriters Laboratories, accessed 3/22/11]

Lawrence Berkeley Lab Researchers: If Cleaned Up Properly, Mercury Exposure “Would Be The Equivalent Of Taking A Tiny Nibble Of Tuna.” According to Yahoo! News, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that mercury exposure from broken CFLs is comparable to eating tuna:

But, just how dangerous is a broken bulb? Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory set out to answer that question. They compared how much exposure you'd get from breathing in the amount of mercury released from a broken CFL bulb to how much mercury you'd take in from eating Albacore tuna.

If you do a common sense job of cleaning up (open the windows, clean up, and remove the debris), then your mercury exposure would be the equivalent of taking a tiny nibble of tuna, according to Francis Rubinstein, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab. What if you did the worst job possible, say closed all the doors and smashed the bulb with a hammer? It's still no big deal, says Rubinstein, who points out that it would be the equivalent of eating one can of tuna. [Yahoo! News, 5/7/09]

Energy Star: Mercury In CFLs Is Dwarfed By Mercury Emissions From Coal-Fired Electricity. From Energy Star, a program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy:

EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 103 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. More than half of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing - an average of 4 milligrams. Because of this, EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs. But if the CFL is not recycled and it ends up in a landfill, EPA estimates that about 11% of the mercury in the CFL is released into air or water, assuming the light bulb is broken. This is because most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb. Therefore, if all 270 million CFLs sold in 2009 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) - they would add only 0.12 metric tons, or 0.12%, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans. [Energy Star, November 2010]

Consumers Have Other Bulb Options, Not Just CFLs

2007 Energy Bill Has Reportedly Spurred A “Tremendous Amount Of Development.” From a January 24 Philadelphia Inquirer column:

Walk down today's lighting aisle, and it's intimidating.

Incandescents. Halogens. CFLs. LEDs. All sizes. All shapes. All colors, from warm white to a crisp bluish tint. And more to come.

So read on for a tour of the ever-burgeoning bulb-land.

“There's a tremendous amount of development,” said Brian Fortenbery, an energy efficiency lighting expert with the Electric Power Research Institute, a national nonprofit. “It's not a one-technology game, by any stretch.”

Driving the change is a provision in the Energy Independence and Security Act that Congress passed in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration.

It set energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, which will begin to phase in come Jan. 1, 2012. [Philadelphia Inquirer, GreenSpace, 1/24/11]

Detroit News: “Stores Feature A Host Of [Bulb] Options That Weren't There Just A Few Years Ago.” From an article in the Detroit News titled “Consumers have many options for energy-efficient light bulbs”:

Stroll through any store that carries light bulbs these days and you'll find a host of options that weren't there just a few years ago. Next to your old incandescent lights, you'll find twisty-looking compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, cone-shaped light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, or stubby-looking halogens, each offering more energy savings than ever before -- some by more than 75 percent -- while lasting years longer. [Detroit News, 2/13/11]

National Electrical Manufacturers Association: Consumers Can Purchase More Efficient Incandescent Bulbs. From the March 10 Congressional testimony by Kyle Pistor of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group that Pistor said “represents 15 companies that sell over 95 percent of the light bulbs (lamps) used in the United States.” From Pistor's testimony:

For example, consumers will still be able to purchase incandescent light bulbs, but instead of using 100 watts for 1600 lumens (brightness), the new advanced. incandescent/halogen bulb only uses 72 watts for the same amount and quality of light. This represents a 28 percent savings in the connected load to the consumer. Similar savings will be achieved for 75 watt, 60 watt, and 40 watt bulbs in the lumen ranges that consumers are used to for those products. These incandescent bulbs can be dimmed just like today's inefficient bulbs, will fit the same sockets, and have the same shape and feel, and quality of light.

The light appearance of these advanced incandescent/halogen bulbs does not differ from today's inefficient incandescent bulbs. Because features between newer incandescent/halogen technologies and old incandescent technologies are almost indistinguishable, there is no utility lost in replacing an inefficient incandescent bulb with a more effective incandescent.

If a consumer wants greater savings, they can opt for a compact fluorescent lamp that provides the 1600 lumens (brightness) but uses only 25-26 watts. This represents a 75 percent savings in terms of wattage per bulb to the consumer.Additional advanced lighting products are also entering the marketplace such as high brightness LED bulbs which represent over 75 percent connected- load savings and very long lives. These LED bulbs are already appearing in the market in the lower wattage replacement areas (40 and 60 watt equivalent lumen ranges) today, and with further advancements into the higher lumen ranges in the next few years.

My point is that the EISA 2007 provisions require manufacturers to reduce the electric power a light bulb uses in producing a certain output of light. The energy savings for the nation that EISA 2007's lighting provisions will generate are substantial, and the opportunity to conserve a substantial amount of energy should not be overlooked. There are and will be a wide variety of light bulb options for consumers, including incandescent/halogen, compact fluorescent, and new advanced technologies like high brightness LED bulbs.Maintaining and expanding consumer choice is a critical aspect of the EISA law. [Testimony before Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, 3/10/11, accessed via Nexis]

Forbes Cites CEI's Myron Ebell As An “Expert” On Light Bulbs

Ebell Is Not A Scientist, Says He Gives “The Informed Layman's Perspective.” According to a May 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Myron Ebell:

Though he likes to bash scientists for working outside their degreed fields, Ebell, it turns out, isn't a scientist at all. He majored in philosophy at the University of California in San Diego, then studied political theory at the London School of Economics and history at Cambridge. He was, he readily admits, a misfit growing up in rural Oregon on his father's 2,000-acre cattle ranch: a “pointy-headed intellectual” who “loathed the counterculture.” He was a misfit in England, too, he discovered: not smart enough to get a fellowship at Cambridge, as Ebell modestly puts it, and not English enough to make do with the modest pay of an English academic. So he returned--with his Albuquerque-born wife, whom he'd met in England--to the U.S., working a succession of public-policy jobs in Washington, carving out conservative positions on property rights, federal lands, and endangered species. In none of those realms did he have any more than his curiosity and convictions.

“I'm not claiming to be a climate authority--the way Jim Hansen is, or Robert Corell,” says Ebell. “Every interview I do, when I'm asked about scientific issues, I say I'm not a climate scientist. I'm just giving you the informed layman's perspective.... If science is going to be discussed in the public arena, then shouldn't people other than scientists be allowed to participate? Isn't that what a representative democracy is?” [Vanity Fair, May 2007]

Ebell Advised Bush Administration Official On How To Downplay EPA Study On Global Warming. According to The Guardian:

Central to the revelations of double dealing is the discovery of an email sent to Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, by Myron Ebell, a director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI is an ultra-conservative lobby group that has received more than $1 million in donations since 1998 from the oil giant Exxon, which sells Esso petrol in Britain.

The email, dated 3 June 2002, reveals how White House officials wanted the CEI's help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming. 'Thanks for calling and asking for our help,' Ebell tells Cooney.

The email discusses possible tactics for playing down the report and getting rid of EPA officials, including its then head, Christine Whitman. 'It seems to me that the folks at the EPA are the obvious fall guys and we would only hope that the fall guy (or gal) should be as high up as possible,' Ebell wrote in the email. 'Perhaps tomorrow we will call for Whitman to be fired,' he added.

The CEI is suing another government climate research body that produced evidence for global warming. The revelation of the email's contents has prompted demands for an investigation to see if the White House and CEI are co-ordinating the legal attack. [The Guardian, 9/21/03]

UK Parliament Introduced Motion To Censure Ebell For Statements He Made About Britain's Chief Science Advisor. According to a Vanity Fair profile of Ebell:

Ebell stirred the wrath of the British Parliament by declaring in a BBC radio interview that the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, had made a “ridiculous claim” on global warming despite knowing “nothing about climate science.” The House of Commons proposed a motion to censure Ebell. (The motion never passed, Ebell says wistfully.) [Vanity Fair, May 2007]