This week marks not just the start of a new year, but a bright new day for energy conservation. Or maybe it's the tragic end of an era, with a beloved product now wiped out of existence by a government forcing its environmental agenda on the rest of us. Which view you take depends on how strongly you feel about interior lighting.
The catalyst for this change was the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a law signed by President George W. Bush with the worthy goal of reducing energy usage and weaning the U.S. off foreign oil. Among other things, the sweeping law set phased-in efficiency standards for most light bulbs, starting in 2012.
In California, those standards culminate this year in a requirement that bulbs must use about 65% less energy to cast the same amount of light, a standard too high for incandescent technology to reach. It's too bad, because other than the fact that they burn way too much electricity, incandescent bulbs are the perfect light source. They make everyone one look good; they dim smoothly and have done so for more than 130 years. Incandescents have had an incredible run, but, regrettably, there's no room for such energy-sucking lamps in the modern world.
Stores may sell the incandescent bulbs they have in stock but are not allowed to replace them. Online stores aren't supposed to ship them to California addresses, though there's no law to stop anyone from driving across state lines and filling the trunk with 60-watt multi-packs. At least, they can do so until 2020, when the standards kick in for the rest of the country.
Some people may not even notice the switch. Others may already be hoarding their favorite bulbs and dreading the day when their final filament burns out and they must choose a replacement from a dizzying array of unfamiliar options. Lumens and watts? Light emitting diodes (LEDs) and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)? Soft white and warm white? What's the difference?
An expert at UC Davis said that 70% to 90% of Californians still rely on incandescent bulbs to light their homes.
Perhaps it is not terribly surprising that so many people have clung to the warm, comforting glow they are used to. The cheap, spiral fluorescent bulbs that conservationists and utilities have pushed on consumers in recent years as money-saving replacements are shoddy imitations that cast a sick glow on faces and homes, and they sometimes flicker or hum. Given that, it's entirely understandable that people might now fear that the new efficiency standards will doom us to a future of harsh glare and eye strain caused by mercury-filled bulbs that are deemed so toxic you can't even toss them in the regular trash. What's the point of saving a few bucks on your electric bill or cutting your energy usage when you've lost the will to live?
Here's a bit of good news: Those early energy-saving CFLs will probably go the way of the incandescent. According to people in the lighting industry, the future is all about LEDs, which have the potential to produce colors and shades that we may someday love as much as we loved the incandescent. Manufacturers have made progress with LEDs in the last few years so that they not only cost less, but you can turn down the glare and turn up the warm, incandescent-esque radiance. They also use a lot less energy than incandescent bulbs and can collectively save consumers billions of dollars a year. One bulb can last as long as 20 years. As recently as 2010, only about 1% of bulbs in California homes were LEDs. Now they are ubiquitous, sold alongside other bulbs for just few bucks each.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the upcoming light bulb switch will reduce carbon emissions by tens of millions of tons every year.
In the fight against climate change, this is the right thing to do. Nevertheless, it is a little sad to see the incandescent light bulb, a reliable workhorse that has served humanity so well and so long, relegated to the dustbin of obsolete technology.