WalMart greening up

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry here: WalMart is about to make a big push to sell 100,000,000 compact fluorescent lamps (bulbs, in common parlance) a year. These are a no-brainer in general: they last ten times as long as incandescents, save three-quarters of the electricity lumen-for-lumen, don’t get hot and cause fires, and only cost about ten bucks (unless your local utility is subsidizing them, as mine is, for $1 each). So far, so good; kudos to WalMart, especially as their suppliers of incandescent lamps seem to be trying to dig their heels in.

However, CFL market penetration has been very slow; only about one household in fifteen uses them. What I can’t understand is how Michael Barbaro can write a zillion column inches about this project and not once mention the most important practical obstacle to CFL adoption: only a few of them, typically hard to find at retail, work with the dimmers that are widely installed and popular. Can it be that no-one at WalMart has figured out that stocking dimmable CFLs, and making it known that they do, is an essential piece of this puzzle? Hasn’t Barbaro been frustrated trying to green up his own house by this problem?

Since I mention it, here’s a merchant among others: google “dimmable cfl” for more.

UPDATE: Nathan Newman has a post on the original story, with a zillion comments, one of which notes that putting cfls in fixtures in rental units that people don’t expect to stay in for ten years is a complicated question for landlords and tenants both. Andy Sabl writes to RBC to suggest that there may not be all that many dimmers installed (in portable or permanent lighting) and perhaps the market is just not there for them. I don’t know; I put dimmers everywhere I could before cfls came out but have now put back some switches so I could use cfls, and made rather complicated modifications so I could use dimmable cfls with multi-location dimmers. I realize most people don’t get inside their walls and wiring as willingly as I do, so I shouldn’t project here.

But the general question, why aren’t more cfls being used, is part of a very interesting and consistent pattern of consumers underadopting energy-efficient technology (high-EER air conditioners, for example) even when the choice puts money in their pocket, sometimes a lot, over time, and even when it’s as easy is picking item A rather than B off a shelf, never mind spending a Saturday weatherstripping windows. It’s not just poor people with very high discount rates or capital market failure, it’s most of us, and it’s puzzling. In the circles I move in, I would have expected social pressure to make people a little embarrassed to have a bunch of incandescent bulbs blazing away just as it’s moved a lot of my friends and associates into smaller cars, and some into hybrids that actually cost them net money; indeed I would have expected overinvestment in these devices (there’s no reason to put a cfl into the bare bulb socket in the attic where it will only operate a few hours a year).

If I don’t stop, I’m headed for a Jeremiad about most people’s deplorable ignorance of the very basic science of their everyday lives, which I will spare you.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.