Earlier this month, Congress passed a law which will essentially force the public to switch to compact fluorescent lights. (CFLs)  Environmentalists and light bulb makers joined forces to boost power and profits, and perhaps sue the competition out of existence.Some people object to the narrow light spectrum and toxic Mercury content of CFL lights, but I don’t care about those things.  I have replaced most of the incandescent lights in my apartment, and plan to eventually replace the rest.  What I question is not the usefulness of CFLs, but the premise that switching to them will “save energy.”

As with most goods and services, the price of a utility influences the quantity I am willing to pay for.  When the price of gas doubles, I reconsider taking road trips, and try to be more efficient with my driving.  Likewise, when the price of electricity falls, I am more liberal with my power consumption.   Compact fluorescent lights lower the cost of lightning in two ways: they use one quarter of the energy, and they last ten times as long.  These innovations encourage greater usage of lighting.

I have a spiffy IKEA lamp behind my couch, but because I don’t have a light in my ceiling fan, it needs to be extra bright.  Furthermore, the geometry of my living room makes it annoying to walk behind the couch every day to turn it on.  By switching to a compact fluorescent light, I was able to get a 100 watt equivalent light in a 60 watt socket, and thanks to its efficiency and long life, I just leave the light permanently on.  I am enjoying greater convenience, but I don’t know if I am saving any energy.

If the average consumer’s monthly lightning budget is fixed, they might compensate for the higher efficiency and lifespan of CFLs by increasing their lightning usage to completely offset any energy reduction.  This would be especially true if consumers are forced to switch to CFLs by legislators rather than a desire to save energy costs.  Much as auto safety regulations can lead to reckless behavior, forcing consumers to switch to more efficient lights might actually increase their energy usage.