Energy & Environment

Lightbulb wars: the saga continues

Dan Farber

Republicans have won a largely symbolic victory for an obsolete technology. Among the sleeper provisions of the new budget deal is a ban on enforcing federal lightbulb standards.  This is a great example of symbolic politics — it makes Tea Party Republicans happy, has limited practical effect, and makes little policy sense.

compact fluorescent blulb

Or to put it another way, the enforcement ban is a dumb thing to do in practical terms.  The policy wonk in me quails. But at the same time it’s good to know that conservatives didn’t have enough leverage for something more important, like depriving EPA of jurisdiction over greenhouse gases.  In fact, they haven’t had enough leverage to actually overturn the regulations; the best they can do is leave them in effect but temporarily suspend funding for enforcement. If enforcement funding ever comes through, anyone who violates the regs during the moratorium will be subject to sanctions.

Unlike many GOP policies, the moratorium doesn’t favor the business community. U.S. producers have all switched to modern, energy-efficient light sources, they support the ban. And they are unlikely to invest in switching back just because there’s a moratorium on U.S. enforcement, especially when the old-fashioned bulbs have been phased out in many other parts of the world.

From a policy point of view, the federal standards make a great deal of sense. There are good reason that, when George W. Bush signed the legislation, the lightbulb standards had bipartisan support.  Among other benefits, they save consumers quite a bit of money.By reducing energy use, they also diminish air pollution from electricity generators.

Rather than business, opposition comes from the Republican grassroots, particularly the Tea Party. The lightbulb regulations are actually a small part of the energy-efficiency effort — much less significant, for example, then CAFE standards for cars.  But changes in light sources are much more visible than changes in the design of car engines or electrical appliances.  So they have become a convenient focal point for anti-government sentiment.

Eventually, this issue will fade away.  New types of bulbs will get cheaper and better, and people will become accustomed to them.  Old-fashioned incandescents will be seen as what they are: an obsolete technology.  In the meantime, we will have to put up with people fighting a rearguard action against progress.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

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Comments to "Lightbulb wars: the saga continues":
    • niki

      Florescent bulbs are expensive and require special handling to dispose. I seem to be replacing them as often as incandescent bulbs. Let people decide what they want. Government is trying to control too much of what people do.

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    • David Carter

      Have you ever worked all day with these new “CFL” bulbs? They are horrible. CFL’s do not produce no where near the temperature range & color spectrum as Incandescents can. Banning incandescents is a horrible idea. Consumers should CHOOSE the most economical bulb that fits their needs. One size doesn’t fit all. Market forces should dictate which bulb we use.

      In addition, CFL do contain some mercury, which could be hazardous when they break.

      [Report abuse]

    • Richard

      Florescent bulbs are expensive and require special handling to dispose. I seem to be replacing them as often as incandescent bulbs. Let people decide what they want. Government is trying to control too much of what people do.

      [Report abuse]

    • Roger Glassey

      If the new technology is really better and less expensive (on a life cycle basis) why do we need a regulation?

      A much better and efficient way to encourage energy efficiency and discourage greenhouse gas emissions is the fossil fuel extraction fee (AKA carbon tax). Then the market will move toward energy sources that are less damaging to the environment and thousands of pages of regulations will be unnecessary.
      “Not every human foible deserves a law or regulation” author unknown

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    • Anthony St. John

      Dan, why don’t we appear to be making any social, political, economic and environmental progress?

      It appears that all the human race does is fight Us Against Them battles and there are never any long-term positive results to guarantee our survival, so our decline and fall accelerates as we run out of resources.

      The United Nations seemed to be our greatest hope for equality and quality of life for all but keeps proving that dream is not possible.

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    • Amelia S. Marshall

      In a few short years, LED bulbs will leave the fluorescent bulbs behind as well. When we cleared a family estate recently, we were overjoyed to find a wonderful cache of illegal old incandescent bulbs amid the clutter. I hope the claims of LED bulb spectra emulating sun spectra turn out to be true in the future, after we’ve burned thru our stash of incandescent 100 W bulbs.

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    • Geoffrey Kidd

      Incandescent bulbs should not be banned. Period. They DO have advantages, not least of which is, under the right circumstances, the heat they generate is actually USEFUL.

      My wife runs a theater group, and they have an outside-the-bulding small shed they use for a costume closet. To prevent mold and damp, they keep the place warm (for a low value of warm) by running a 60-watt bulb 24/7. It’s not wasted energy, considering that it’s an investment in keeping the costumes usable.

      What politicians do NOT understand is that efficiency is relative, and always depends on just what you’re effishing for.

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    • Donald Kasarda

      I am not a Tea Party Republican — not any type of Republican — but rather a typical Berkeley liberal. I am an 80-year old whose vision is not as good as it used to be. I find that I need much more light now to read fine print than I did a few years ago. I also find that the replacements for incandescent light bulbs do not work as well for me as incandescent bulbs. I have tried them all.

      I was pleased to read the acknowledgement by Dan Farber that: “The lightbulb regulations are actually a small part of the energy-efficiency effort — much less significant, for example, then CAFE standards for cars.” I drive a small car that gets nearly 30 miles to the gallon on the highway. I resent the fact that I cannot buy a 100-watt incandescent bulb when so many of my fellow Berkeley citizens tool around the urban streets in huge 4-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles, getting maybe 15 miles to the gallon.

      The total restriction on incandescent light bulbs makes no sense to me. For the first time, I am in agreement with Republicans.

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    • Wanda Berger

      The larger picture is not so ‘bright’. While folks might feel smug about reducing energy use by buying more efficient light bulbs, the telling feature of the country is that each year we add another 3 million light bulb users. Population growth is the unsustainable elephant in the living room that is not being reported. Why? Likely because the “I” word (immigration) makes it an untouchable subject.

      [Report abuse]

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