Shortage of rare earth metals results in higher CFL prices

Consumer Reports News: September 16, 2011 04:53 PM

China's decision to shutter or nationalize dozens of rare earth metal producers is driving up the cost of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) in the U.S., according to the New York Times. The report comes as the planned phase-out of incandescent bulbs, slated to begin in January, is stirring up controversy in Washington. Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has been among the most vocal opponents of the phase-out, arguing that "the government has no business telling an individual what kind of lightbulb to buy."

The reported price hikes won't quell protests. The average price for a CFL is up 37 percent this year, the Times reports, attributing the figure to the National Electrical Manufacturer's Association (NEMA). When we contacted NEMA, Joseph Higbee, Director, Marketing and Communications said that the reported price increase was in reference to public announcements made by some lighting manufacturers.

The higher prices are prompting sticker shock at places like Walmart, where the bulbs are sold. “Obviously we don’t want to pass along price increases to our customers, but occasionally market conditions require it,” Walmart spokesperson Tara Raddohl told the Times.

But based on our latest review of energy-efficient lightbulbs, CFLs are still a bargain in the long run, even with the alleged 37 percent price increase. We found that CFLs could pay for themselves in less than a year, saving you about $52 per 60-watt incandescent equivalent over the life of the bulb. The savings will drop as the purchase price of CFLs goes up, but we're no where near the point where inefficient incandescent bulbs could actually be cheaper in the long run. And some of the CFLs we tested cast pleasing light without the slow warm-up times that have hurt their image in the past.

Consumer Reports also tested LEDs, which cost even more than CFLs, but are claimed to last longer. Based on our calculations, the average price for an LED is between $20 and $60, but you could end up saving between $65 and $400 over the 18- to 46-year life of the bulb compared with an equivalent incandescent. And the light quality can be superb. Indeed, an LED by Philips earned a near-perfect overall score of 98 out of 100, plus the bulb is dimmable and suitable for outdoor use, as long as it won't be exposed to moisture.

Beyond lightbulbs, the materials crunch in China could impact other green-energy technologies, including wind turbines and fuel-efficient vehicles. The October 2011 issue of Consumer Reports features reports on these products. While they both have potential, there's also room for improvement, and that could be hampered by the sudden shortage of rare earth metals.

Daniel DiClerico

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