Editor’s Note: Brian Clark Howard co-wrote the book Green Lighting with Seth Leitman and William Brinsky. The following is an op-ed piece and does not necessarily describe the views or opinions of Earth911.
Talk of the impending “incandescent light bulb ban” can get folks more heated than the insides of an Easy-Bake oven.
A quick survey online turns up online petitions and screeds by industry-funded “think tanks” that argue passionately for the government to keep their hands out of the hardware aisle. A lot of people are worried about the size and cost of big government, and for good reason, as the U.S. faces record levels of debt. In this era of increasingly complicated laws, it’s understandable that people feel driven to draw a line in the sand.
The light bulb is such a familiar and iconic image that it’s much easier to grasp than, say, the nuances of health care policy or philosophical arguments over states’ rights. It’s easy to say “government will have to pry the last Edison bulb from my cold, dead hand,” but it is ultimately a losing argument.
It’s certainly important to discuss the roles of regulation and individual choice in our society, but lighting also shouldn’t be used as a political pawn. There’s nothing wrong with deciding on light bulbs based on their facts, and leaving the philosophical questions for another day.
So, what are the facts when it comes to bulbs and the ban?
1. It isn’t actually a ban.
Although news reports and the public often portray our lighting standards as a “ban,” the term really doesn’t make much sense. Incandescents aren’t getting banned; it’s just that new bulbs will have to meet higher energy efficiency standards, though there are numerous exceptions to take care of niche uses, such as for appliances and three-way switches.
The law in question, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, was passed during the Bush administration. It states that all new general purpose bulbs must be 30 percent more efficient than standard incandescents by 2012 (for 100-watt bulbs).
A number of lighting technologies already meet those standards, as do most halogens — which are actually incandescents (with a bit of added technology, namely presence of a halogen element from the periodic table and a quartz envelope to hold it in).
In addition to well-known halogen types like torchieres and track lights, halogens are now increasingly offered as replacements to conventional incandescents. These bulbs are often called hybrid or Halogena lights, and they work great and cost only a bit more upfront than regular old light bulbs, yet they save energy and last longer.
2. It will save us money.
The trouble with standard incandescents is that they are so inefficient. They only turn 2-10 percent of the energy they use into useful light, releasing the rest as waste heat. This adds to cooling loads in the summer and is the reason why the first Easy-Bake oven had as its only heater nothing but a regular incandescent bulb.
By switching to more efficient lighting, we will all save money relatively quickly. If you are into calculating the ROI (return on investment) of things, you may be interested to know that the Energy Cost Savings Council found the average investment in efficient lighting had an ROI of 45 percent, with a payback of 2.2 years. That’s hard to beat, at least legally.
As my co-authors and I discovered when we researched our recent book Green Lighting, Americans saved $1.5 billion by switching to CFLs in 2007. So think about how many billions will be saved each year by a broader shift to efficient technologies! (By the way, that 2007 figure represented the equivalent of taking two million cars off the road.)
Smart commercial building managers already shifted away from incandescents years ago, because they have big electric bills to deal with, and they are typically tasked by their bosses with cutting expenses. If all of us ran our households as such tight ships, we’d stop using incandescents, too.
3. The rest of the world is already doing it.
Similarly, travel through much of the world, and you’ll notice something: You won’t see many incandescents, as many millions of people have already switched over to better technologies. This is readily apparent in Europe, which tends to lean green, but also in many developing countries. It’s also worth pointing out that most other developed countries, and some developing ones, have lighting efficiency standards on the books that are very similar to our own.
4. It will help keep us competitive.
Since much of the rest of the world has already moved beyond standard incandescents, it stands to reason that we shouldn’t envy getting left behind. We failed to jump on the metric system bandwagon, and we’re stuck with substandard measurements like inches and pounds.
The world’s major lighting manufacturers have been phasing out incandescents gradually for years, so the idea that America’s standards will suddenly end jobs is greatly overstated by opponents. GE and others have been working hard on new innovations for efficient incandescents, not to mention halogens, fluorescents, LEDs (light emitting diodes) and beyond. If we try to buck the global trend and keep things comfortable, we stand a real chance of making our manufacturing sector obsolete.
5. Alternatives have improved.
A lot of the resistance to the “bulb ban” comes from those who aren’t happy with CFLs. Sure, the technology has some drawbacks, though it has improved a lot over the past few years. Recent models give better light, turn on quicker and last longer than ever.
They also contain less mercury. Although all fluorescents should be treated with care and disposed of properly (look here on Earth911.com), you do not need to call haz mat if one breaks. As we discovered from working on Green Lighting, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told us that you are likely to take in more mercury from one meal of fish than from a broken CFL.
But if you just hate CFLs, that’s fine, even understandable. Get halogens and put them on dimmers, which will save energy. If you can afford to spend a little more upfront, LEDs are getting very nice. Home Depot’s EcoSmart line starts at $20, which is where CFLs were about 15 years ago.
6. Mandates versus choice is an oversimplification.
The question of whether lighting choices should be “mandated” or left to “individual choice” is tantalizing, yet the truth is probably more nuanced than black and white. Globally, the “free market” has been shifting away from inefficient incandescents and toward massive investments in newer technologies. In a significant way, the new standards are an incentive to inventors to keep improving designs, which should further drive economic growth.
Those who don’t want to change bulbs primarily because they don’t like change should get halogens, which are not appreciably different than regular old bulbs. Is that a slight inconvenience for the sake of considerable environmental, and I would add economic, good?
Anyone arguing today that they should have the choice to buy lead paint, and just tell their kids and pets not to ingest the paint chips, would probably get laughed at. But people did have just that argument just a few decades ago.