Refrigerators and cars have become more energy-efficient. Water heaters and windows have too. So it’s strange that so many politicians cling to old-style incandescent light bulbs.
Contrary to what congressional critics have been saying, a law passed during the George W. Bush administration does not ban incandescent bulbs. Rather, it phases in higher requirements for energy efficiency that the old incandescents — in use for more than 100 years since they were developed by Thomas Edison — do not meet because much of their energy creates heat rather than light. Starting in 2012, the traditional 100-watt bulbs go off the market, followed over the next two years by lower-wattage bulbs. California is moving ahead even more quickly, phasing out the 100-watt bulb this year.
Once the phase-out is fully in place, the law will save consumers about $12 billion a year in energy costs; the average California household will save $124 a year. And more than utility bills are at stake. Conservation is one of the fastest and most effective paths to energy independence. The bulb law will save the country more energy than it takes to power a third of the state of California. And even though compact fluorescent bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, making them harder to dispose of, the law will reduce mercury pollution overall by eliminating the need for 30 coal-fired power plants.
The incandescent bulb is an old favorite, shedding a warm glow. It’s cheap to purchase (though other bulbs ultimately cost a lot less). That’s why politicians have begun efforts to repeal the bulb law. After one such bill failed in the House last week, Republicans revived and passed it in the form of an amendment to the Energy Department’s appropriations bill, stripping out funding for enforcing the law. That amendment faces more resistance in the Senate, but the move has given impetus to efforts in several states to get around the law by exempting bulbs manufactured and sold within state boundaries. Such a measure passed the Texas Legislature; others are pending in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
It remains to be seen whether those state bills would have much impact. The light-bulb industry supports the new energy standards and has been closing old production lines and improving technologies. An incandescent-halogen hybrid looks the same as the traditional bulb yet meets the federal standard. New fluorescents give off a warmer light than they used to. Light-emitting diode, or LED, bulbs initially cost a bundle — $30 or so — but provide the desired glow, last decades, are dimmable and use a fraction of the energy.
Many opponents complain that the bulb law is an unwarranted government intrusion on their right to buy the product of their choice. But it’s actually about setting standards for production, which the government does in many areas. Cribs must meet safety standards; new homes must meet energy standards; roofs have to meet fire standards.
Reducing both energy dependence and pollution is vital to the nation’s future and collective health; on balance, individual consumers give up little and gain much. Edison himself, ever the forward thinker, probably would have approved.