Reflections on Illumination

by Richard T. Stuebi

While grocery shopping yesterday, I found that our local store has finally started stocking GE (NYSE: GE) compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs).

Candidly, my experience to date with CFLs has not been positive. Last year, I went to Home Depot (NYSE: HD), where I tend to buy household gadgets, thinking they would have the best selection of CFLs. At least back then, Home Depot didn’t carry GE CFLs (some say this was because of ex-CEO Bob Nardelli’s lingering resentment of having been passed over for Jeff Immelt when Jack Welch stepped down as CEO of GE), so I bought what Home Depot had in stock: a carton of private-label CFLs, for about $10 for a 5-pack.

I wish I could say that I was blown away by the CFLs, but regrettably, I wasn’t. In my assessment, the light quality provided by the CFLs was too pale, and it took far too long (10-20 seconds) to reach even a minimally acceptable “warm” color. Furthermore, the CFLs were not usable in many of the applications in my home: they don’t fit into lamps with tight covers/shades, and when installed to a fixture with dimmers, they emit an annoying loud buzzing sound — and an awful Snap-Crackle-Pop (and I don’t mean Rice Krispies) when the dimmer is turned down.

My initial foray into CFLs thus resulted in considerable disappointment. Although I don’t feel good about it at all, so far I’ve generally stuck with the old horribly inefficient incandescents — they at least produce a quality of light that I’ve come to expect.

I’ve been told that CFL quality varies, and that GE’s CFL products are quite a bit better — albeit more expensive — than the generic brands of the kind I had bought. I didn’t search all over town for GE CFLs, but I never saw them anywhere I happened to be shopping. Until this weekend.

Now, here in front of me finally were individually-packaged GE CFLs, the 15 watt (60 watt incandescent equivalent) priced at $4.49. Two shelves below were the standard GE incandescent 60 watt soft white lightbulbs, priced at $1.59 for a 4-pack, or about $0.40 per bulb. The CFL is thus 11 times more expensive, on a first-cost basis, than the incandescent. For the average customer, who is typically very conscious of the initial cost and pretty clueless about life-cycle economics, this is a really big spread.

In small print on the CFL packaging, GE claims that the 15 watt CFL bulb will save over its 3000-hour lifetime $13 worth of electricity (at $0.10/kwh) relative to 60 watt incandescents offering the same lumination.

$13 worth of electricity savings for an extra $4 up-front sounds like a pretty good deal. However, of course, it all depends on how many years it will take the user to generate the $13 of electricity savings — which in turn depends on how much the user uses the lightbulb.

A year is comprised of 8760 hours, so if the CFL operates 24/7, it will only take a few months to generate $13 in savings. Perhaps more importantly, it will only take a few weeks to pay back the extra $4 for the CFL instead of the incandescent. But, few of us use any lights anywhere near that much.

For a lamp used an hour a day, or about 300 hours a year, it will take 10 years to achieve the $13 in savings — or about 3 years to recover the $4 extra premium for buying the CFL instead of incandescents. A 3-year payback represents a good internal rate of return, on the order of 20%, which is far better than the long-term returns historically offered by the stock market.

So why don’t I pursue a 20% financial return? On further consideration, I am put off for two reasons.

First, I can see for sure the $4 extra leaving my hands today to buy the CFL — but I don’t have anywhere near the same degree of confidence that I’ll actually generate the economic savings at the desired pace. Will I really use the CFL about an hour a day? It might be more like 15 minutes a day, leading instead to a 12 year payback period — an outright unattractive financial return.

Second, I am strongly influenced my past negative experience with CFLs. If I buy this expensive lightbulb today, will I like its light? Will I be annoyed every time I turn it on and wait for it to have a color I can barely tolerate? Will I swap it out for a regular incandescent after a few weeks?

When I reflect upon it further, it’s the second set of considerations that put me off from buying that GE CFL. I bought CFLs in the past that I disliked, and don’t use. They were a bad investment. Even though it’s relatively small dollars involved, I don’t like making mistakes — and I really hate making the same mistake twice.

I speculate that I might not be alone in having a poor first impression of CFLs. Such a bias will probably need to be overcome by a no-cost favorable experience with a good CFL. If they really want to build the market, players like GE might consider an investment in a mass-scale public free trial — a mailbox stuffer? — of CFLs. I know that if I got a GE CFL for free, I’d give it a go — and assuming I liked the product, maybe then I’d consider buying some at $4.49 per.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

17 replies
  1. energy_saver
    energy_saver says:

    I question the purpose and honesty of this article on the basis that the payback criteria calculations are nonsense.Stubei states .. "Will I really use the CFL about an hour a day? It might be more like 15 minutes a day, leading instead to a 12 year payback period — an outright unattractive financial return."Does he migrate between the North and South Pole to gain 24 hours daylight time?Who in the world switches a lamp on for only 15 minutes. I have replaced all my lighting with Philips CFL's; my calculated payback is less than 2 years; I am saving 1 Kw of energy each month; and the wife is more than happy with the color tones and performance.Stubei makes absolutely no mention of the CO2 reduction of using CFL's having to burn less fossil fuels. I would note that Stubei's company mentions energy companies as clients, does this include power companies, Big Oil, etc?We should be told to ensure there is no alternative agenda and Cleantech Blog should reassess Stubei's suitability for this forum.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What about incandescent bulbs life? Is shorter than CFL’s… Is possible save money on that.And as Energy_saver said, what about CO2 emission reduction? Sustainable actions, generally, are more expensive. Does our world worth the trouble?Latin Bodo

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    I suppose the author substantiated his arguments using his experience and not research. TCP for example, when turned on come up to 80% of full power. That's almost full light capacity instantly. Almost all manufactures sell a variety of kelvins from 2700 (Incandescent range) to 6000 Kelvin. They also come in a variety of sizes. No mention was made of the heat factor either. CFL's generate much less heat.

  4. Kris Tuttle
    Kris Tuttle says:

    Most consumers don’t buy with an HP12C in their hand.People feel that energy costs are going up, the environment needs attention and then they change behavior and buying patterns. The Toyota Prius, hybrids and all that help people feel good even if they are dubious financial ideas.I use CFL bulbs in many applications and they work fine. There are still places for other light types from halogen to LED but CFL has a clear position, especially in the many lights that do tend to stay on all the time for ambient light.When CFL bulbs were expensive and huge they were unattractive but at these prices it’s a tiny price to pay for a consumer who feels that energy bills have gone up and they want to economize.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    right on about CFLs. I wasn’t happy with them either until I figured out that the wattage replacement values are not equivalent. All my CFLs are 23 watt versions that to my 55 year old eyes become the equivalent of a 60 watt incandecent when reading the paper in the living room.

  6. Scott Darpel
    Scott Darpel says:

    I’m going to defend, not only Richard, but his stance.First of all, Richard works at a non-profit organization that is working very hard in the Cleveland Area to bring real renewable power to a reality. I do not question his sincerity, integrity, or honesty.Secondly, I think the previous posters are missing an important point. Or, should I say, they are missing an important point of view; that of Joe Consumer. It is very hard, indeed, to expect that people living paycheck to paycheck (regrettably, most of the US, these days) to look at spending $4.49 per bulb, vs. $1.59 per four pack with no expectation of what they are getting. Additionally, these bulbs LOOK strange. People, generally, do not LIKE strange. They are comforted by what looks familiar.The two biggest selling points for CFB’s are cost savings and life. Richard hit it right on the head. How many people, standing in the aisle at WalMart, Home Depot, etc, are seriously going to sit there and appreciate saving $13 over the lifetime of the bulb? They just do not think that long. Even the argument of longer life has a limited affect. That is to say, how often do you think people have to change bulbs? Even with the old bulbs, I find it hard to imagine I changed a bulb more than once per month.Yes, we should all be concerned about CO2. But, once again, this is something that is just too intangible to Joe Consumer. How much are you telling them they can reduce CO2 emissions by switching to CFB’s? Boy, that doesn’t seem like much. Of course, if you are reading the Cleantech Blog, you understand the combined impact of the masses doing this. They do not. They understand that, buy spending more money now, I will not be able to buy something else.All this being said, I HAVE begun my switch to CFB’s. First of all, I, luckily, am not living paycheck to paycheck, and can afford the additional upfront cost. Secondly, I do have some bulbs that are a pain in rear to change (high, hanging lamps). If I can do it less often, that would be great. I am also someone working in the area of renewable energy system architectures for an engineering doctorate. So, I do understand the big picture.All this points to something that I do not think most of our community wants to accept: You cannot force, nor expect wholesale, changes to people’s standard of living and lifestyles unless it has financial payback. This payback must be obvious, and provable. It must be tangible and understood by the masses. Again, Richard hit the nail on the head. GE and others should give away one free bulb through coupon, etc. People generally like free stuff. A good many will try it, and hopefully, have a better experience than we did at first. Also, do not expect them to switch over wholesale at first. They will use this first one, and, most likely, still buy the cheap bulbs. At some point, however, they will realize, hey, I haven’t changed THAT bulb in a long time. Maybe there IS something to these bulbs. I guess I’ll buy some more.I’m going to borrow a phrase from Neil Peart, and my high school English teacher: GE, Phillips & Others, SHOW, DON’T TELL.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    “they emit…an awful Snap-Crackle-Pop (and I don’t mean Rice Krispies) when the dimmer is turned down.”That might be because you’re not supposed to use CFL bulbs with a dimmer.Unless it’s one of those more expensive ones that are made specifically for dimmer switches.

  8. energy_saver
    energy_saver says:

    very noble, if somewhat naive of scott (darpel) to defend the author on the basis of his non-profit work.perhaps i’m just a battle weary, hardened, paranoid skeptic (i am a member of an NGO in Hong Kong – ) but i have learned that when it comes to big oil, they will do anything to maintain their profits.stuebi’s article was an immediate red flag because here is a guy who purports to be in to clean energy, RE, etc and yet he produces a scathing report on a widely accepted ‘green’ technology.beware the stalking i note stuebi has removed his bio and hence the linkage to big oil although the BP Fellow is a bit of a giveaway.

  9. fugazi48
    fugazi48 says:

    This article appears to be written by someone trying to curb the purchase of CFL bulbs. Crazy. I use them all over, I am willing to sacrifice a few seconds of light to save some electricity and not just produce heat for my AC to remove. I get 6 of these at Costco for about $9. They work great indoors.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    why does it seem that there has to be an instant light color when the light is turned on? America has gotten spoiled with I want it now! We need to save energy. And start now! Have you ever thought how much energy it takes just to use the internet?

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I rarely post comments, but this article is so silly that I can't resist.We've replaced almost every single bulb in our house with CFL's. Within reason, my wife and I could care less how quickly the bulbs come up to 100% brightness. At this point, we are so familiar with CFL provided light that we can't imagine ever going back to incandescent bulbs.Not mentioned in this article is the large amount of heat produced by incandescents. Our smaller bathroom has three bulbs, and before switching to CFL's the room became noticeably warmer after a few minutes. This heat has to go somewhere, and anything we can do to run our AC less is a good thing. (Heat is not a trivial matter in Texas!)

  12. Roger, in Bangkok
    Roger, in Bangkok says:

    I too have used CFLs for a number of years, and find they do also fail prematurely fron time to time, especially in bathrooms and other high condensing humidity areas. Run continuously I am sure they will prove their stated lifetime figures side-by-side against incandescants. CFLs contain electronics and electronics normally fail on power-up when hit with the current surge … similar problem with incandescants but not quite so marked, from my life-experience.Another point that seems to escape the masses is the mercury content in these devices. As more and more get out into the world the environmentalists will find a whole new stage for building such wonderful things as legislated hazardous disposal requirements and surcharges to cover collection, etc. etc.As has already been suggested, nobody will successfully interfere with profits of big-business, they will just get shfted from pillar to post, but always paid from the consumers' pocket.Regards/Roger, in Bangkok

  13. Ham
    Ham says:

    Number one the damn government should outlaw those damn incandescent light bulbs because they waste SOOOOOOOOOO much energy. Two he is only looking at one bulb I counted bulbs in my house one time, there was around 40 bulbs WOW now that $13 in that 7-8 years (life of CFL bulb) now becomes $520.00 which is $74.28 a year! Thats huge! Just for switching to CFLs!!!! Also 10-20 secs to become fully bright, so he is telling us that he will not put up with 10-20 secs to become bright for almost $75.00 a year? I do not agree him on these things.Visit me at!Thanks!

  14. Richard T. Stuebi
    Richard T. Stuebi says:

    Note to energy_saver:You may disagree with my statements, but it is not because I represent so-called "Big Oil" in any way. I am not employed by BP, nor ever have been, nor do I have any relationship with them whatsoever. My fellowship at The Cleveland Foundation was funded by BP as a philanthropic gift long before my tenure there.I heartily encourage comments to my blog postings, even opposing views. However, I prefer that dissenting opinions be kept at a professional level, debating on the substance of the issues and premises/assumptions that are used, rather than assuming any hidden agenda or evil intent on my part.

  15. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I have lived in my current appartment for 9 years. The First 7 years I had standard incandesent bulbs and replaced one bulb. I didn't believe the hype of cf's but gave them a try.I don't belong to any group. I have been a conservationist since 1963; but, on my own. I felt the change to cfl's was being pushed by light makers because they could charge more for the new digital TV is doing now. Any way I have noticed a slight change in KW's on my bill but I have also replaced 5 cfl's in the last 24 months. The ones I bought claimed 10,000 hours of life; which I believe works out to something like 13 hours a day every day for he 2 years. The thing is I replaced 3 in less than 2 months after switching them.I did get one of the dimmer type but if you want to play rock star put a standard cfl in the socket… I didn't get snap crackle pop I got strob. (not one of the ones that burned out either)The three that burned out quickest were General Electric. The ones that are still working are mostly the cheap (use cheap loosely here) best buy brand that look like regular bulbs because they put a globe around the tubes. To whoever asked:My part of the internet uses: laptop … 67 watts per hour desktop… 169 watts per hour if I also have the printer onfrom:a self made conservationist, nonjoinerand otherwise a complete and total nobody.P.S. I did do the math in the store on my cell phone. And again after I got home just to be sure I did it right. (I really did not believe it but when they said 2112 would have to switch I figured go ahead and try it)

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