Hybrid cars vs. compact fluorescents: how not to nickel and dime our way to Kyoto

Last week I talked about the proposed ban on incandescent lights that is sweeping across the country. I said that the energy savings from replacing incandescent bulbs with energy efficient compact fluorescents are negligible. Let me quantify that statement.

I have 16 100-watt incandescent lights. If I replaced them today with 29-watt compact fluorescents (the package says that is equivalent to a 100-watt incandescent), it would cost me $292 including tax. At the rate they save energy, it would take me more than 8 years to pay off the $292.

(Here’s how I arrived at that number. The federal government estimates that household lighting accounts for 11 percent of residential electricity use in Canada. According to my most recent power bill, I used 614 kilowatt-hours over two months. So, by the federal government’s estimate, 67 of those 614 kWh went to lighting. That works out to 33 kWh per month for lighting.

If I were to replace all my 16 incandescent lights with compact fluorescents—which I won’t do, because their light quality is inferior—I would cut those 33 kWh to 11. This would save 22.5 kWh per month, shaving less than $3 per month off my power bill. Each 29-watt compact fluorescent costs $18.24, including tax; sixteen of them would cost $292. To pay off $292 with the energy savings—$3 per month—it would take 8.1 years.)

What emission reductions would result from replacing incandescents with compact fluorescents? It depends on where you get your electricity. I live in Ontario, where according to Environment Canada the average annual emission intensity of electricity generation is 272 grams per kilowatt-hour. Over those eight years, my $292 investment in inferior-quality lighting will prevent 587 kilograms of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from going into the atmosphere. In British Columbia, the same $292 investment would prevent only 52 kg over 8 years; in Quebec, less than 18.

The Ban-the-incandescent movement appears to have taken hold in Nova Scotia, and other provincial governments including Ontario are also talking about it like it is a serious measure against climate change. How much money and time will they spend in the effort to achieve such meager savings? In my opinion, any amount is too much.

Rather, they should focus where they can achieve truly dramatic emission reductions. I showed in Taking the giant step that you could cut 1,200 kilograms of GHGs in a single year by driving a Toyota Camry Hybrid rather than its non-hybrid counterpart.

If you live in British Columbia, getting a hybrid would result in GHG reductions more than 180 times as big over the 8-year payoff period as what you’d get by nickel-and-diming with a bunch of sub-standard lightbulbs. And if you live in Quebec, the hybrid option would achieve a reduction more than 560 times as big.

Governments should focus their efforts on getting more hybrids on the road. A break on the GST would help.

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16 years ago

I would just point out that most CFLs don’t cost $18. However calculating for a 5 times cheaper 23W CFL vs 100W I found that those fixtures that are little used (3-4 hours per week) allowing for 50% recovery of waste heat (e.g. winter replacement heating effect RHE) I came up with 6 to 7 year pay backs. Using CFLs in frequent use fixtures do have a good payback especially if you make use of sales and coupons.
As for GHGs I have posted on other sites the fact that in some provinces (e.g. Quebec) there can be an actual increase in GHG in the winter if the CFL is placed in a building that is heated by a fossil fuel (The increase is due to RHE, vs the lack of GHG production by the local electricity production)

Steve Aplin
16 years ago

Thanks cbr, good point about replacement heating effect. The reason I installed CFLs last summer was precisely to avoid heating my place while my AC tried to cool it. But the light quality was so irritatingly lousy that I pulled them all out and went back to incandescents. My main point is that CFLs are so nickel and dime that it hardly warrants the time and effort for the government to promote them. Let their manufacturers do that.