November 11, 2010
Old wine, new bottles
The real problem with CFLs--besides exposing the hypocrisy of environmentalists who have suddenly discovered the wisdom of regulating toxic materials at threshold, rather than detectable, amounts (though that might be a benefit)--is that their wide adoption encourages political busybodies to imagine that mandating a technology can make it an economic reality.
Rather, you can "mandate" something after it's been proved economically feasible. Fluorescent lighting technology has been economically feasible for fifty years.
A good example of a mandated failure is Japan's analog HDTV system, lauded as forward-thinking in the 1980s when everything Japan did was proof that whatever the U.S. was doing sucked (though that was true about the automobile industry). It ended up an expensive and wasteful white elephant. The U.S. implemented digital HDTV a year ahead of Japan.
There's a lot to be said for not rushing to embrace cutting-edge technologies. The CFL is based on quite old technology that now thrives through improvements in materials science and manufacturing (and, yes, regulatory capture). When I lived in Japan thirty years ago, the not-so-compact CFL was ubiquitous--because it was economical, not because it was "green."
Electricity in Japan is twice as expensive as the U.S. (and even more when factored as a percentage of real income in 1980; if you thought the oil shocks of the early 1970s were shocking in the U.S., they were heart-stopping in Japan). The same goes for automobile fuel efficiency. An old but refined technology like diesel blows away ultra-modern hybrids in raw MPG.
The Japanese make and drive fuel-efficient cars because gas costs twice as much and the registration fees and taxes on large engines ("large" meaning over a paltry 1.6 liters) are ten times as much, not because of government mandates. In fact, higher CAFE standards lower the cost of driving. Making something cheaper does not encourage its conservation.
Over the last quarter century, total vehicle-miles-driven in the U.S. has climbed three times faster than population growth and twice as fast as auto registrations. The only things that temporarily flatten the curve are big honking increases in the price of gasoline and big honking recessions.
Politicians can't raise the price of gas or tax vehicles to levels that would change the behavior of their constituents in meaningful ways (and get reelected), so they tell tall tales that only apply to hypothetical worlds where nobody lives. We go along with the charade because it makes us feel good. It's a substitute for religion--though tithing would be cheaper.