Pro: Critics of new bulbs generate more heat than light

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Matthew R. Auer
Saturday, August 20, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should Congress ban old-fashioned light bulbs?

American Citizens: Wrap your lighting fixtures in razor wire! Guard your pantries! 2012 is coming! And so are the Light Bulb Police—to confiscate your 100-watt incandescent bulbs and ticket you for using old technology! So goes the hysterical strain of what some are calling “the light bulb ban”—a misreading, deliberate or otherwise, of a provision in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

That act requires manufacturers to cease producing conventional 100-watt incandescent bulbs after Jan. 1, 2012. On New Year’s Day, the clock also starts ticking on a 24-month phase-out of old-fashioned, lower-wattage incandescents, such as conventional 60-watt bulbs.

In fact, the 2007 law does not ban incandescent bulbs. It bans manufacture of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs.

In their place, consumers can purchase energy-saving incandescents, with the familiar, fat, round heads. The new bulbs contain a halogen-filled gas capsule surrounding a tungsten wire filament.

They’re already available at the supermarket, and they produce the same luminosity as the old bulbs using less electricity. The upfront cost is higher, but the bulbs’ lower energy demand generates a 100 percent payback in little more than a year. And incidentally, the 2007 law imposes no sanctions on users of old bulbs. Consumers can stockpile and use conventional bulbs until the sun itself burns out, but I don’t recommend that.

The new bulbs give off bright, warm light, save money, reduce our demand for coal-based electricity, shrink our carbon footprint and are a different technology than compact fluorescent lamps that some people complain about with such gripes as CFL light is too “cold,” there is mercury in the bulb, and so on.

The obvious advantages of energy-saving incandescent bulbs may partly explain why a recent proposed repeal of various provisions in the 2007 law failed in the House. Consumer groups and the industry association whose members produce almost all bulbs sold in the United States lobbied against the repeal effort. Manufacturers like GE pledged years ago to produce better incandescent bulbs that demand less energy and save consumers money.

But the movement to repeal the “ban” has much more to do with politics than policy.

As Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., explained to a reporter from The Hill newspaper. “It is just another government intrusion in our lives. … I think people are just increasingly aggravated that the government is telling us what kind of toilets we have, what kind of light bulbs we have, what kind of health insurance, so I think it is just coming to a boil outside.”

Never mind that the phase-out provisions were approved by a prior president and that the 2007 law was co-sponsored by the current chairman of the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s striking that only a few years ago, Republicans in the House and the White House understood the advantages of no-cost/low-cost measures to make the U.S. more energy efficient.

But times change, and one big change since 2007 is the ascendance of advocates for liberty at any cost. Their influence is apparent in bills with titles like, “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.” Freedom to choose is great in the abstract and frequently also in practice. It’s not great when choices we make cause other people to suffer. It’s especially regrettable when we eschew choices that improve everyone’s well-being while harming no one.

The bottom line is that the benefits of the phase-out policy far outweigh the costs. This explains why critics of the phase-out tend to focus on symbolic rather than substantive considerations.

Consider Sen. DeMint’s complaint, above. Sensible bipartisan solutions are hard to come by in Washington. Let’s not dismantle smart domestic policy from the Bush years for the sake of naysayers who, certainly in this case, are generating more heat than light.

Matthew R. Auer is dean of the Hutton Honors College and professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Readers may write him at SPEA, 811 E. 7th St., Bloomington, IN 47405-7706.

Last updated: 6:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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