Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let There Not Be Light

An Associated Press article today, “It’s lights out for the incandescent bulb in Calif,” is a good example of how not to use numbers. It’s about the government-mandated transition from incandescent light bulbs to more energy-efficient alternatives.

On one hand...

“These standards will help cut our nation’s electric bill by over $10 billion a year and will save the equivalent electricity as 30 large power plants,” said Noah Horowitz a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

...and on the other hand...

Nick Reynoza, manager at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles, said it’s a shame the transition comes at a time when alternatives are so much more expensive.

“It’s not really an option — you have this or you don’t get anything,” he said. “The options are more expensive. Four incandescents are $1.00, the halogens are $5.99 and the LED are like $20.”

In other words, one guy has numbers that say the transition will save a lot of money. Another guy has different numbers that say it will cost a lot of money. Is that the end of the story?

The newer bulbs are more expensive than incandescents, but supporters of the technology say they last so much longer that there is a financial savings in the end. For example, while incandescents provide as much as 2,000 hours of light, compact fluorescents can provide light for six times longer.

The article is trying to do the right thing, explaining how consumers will pay more for alternative bulbs, but the alternative bulbs will last longer. However, having already specified the extra costs of halogen and LED bulbs, the article manages to not tell us how much longer these types of bulbs will last. Instead, we get that figure for compact fluorescent bulbs, which were not mentioned in the cost differences.

So, the chance was missed to let readers understand whether the new light bulbs are a better or worse deal in terms of a bulb’s cost per hour of light.

Stranger, the article did not even try to factor-in the additional savings to consumers from lower electrical bills, even though that is the point of the transition in the first place.

If this was breaking news, the slapdash numeracy might be understandable, as would the mention of a congressman who “could not immediately be reached for comment.” But are those really the standards for a three-weeks-after-the-fact article?

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