Lightbulb Wars : The Saga Continues

Republicans win 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.

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.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Lightbulb Wars : The Saga Continues”

  1. Actually old fashion incandescent lightbulbs are useful in cold climates… they serve to warm the room as well as light the room. If you don’t leave the lights on in all rooms (leaping them on in the rooms you are actually using), you’ll find for those of us who had cold winters, that you’ll actually reduce energy usage. You should realize if you live in California, you might have very myopic vision about the utility of a particular gadget—so let the market decide.

    Since it’s your claim that the market eventually works, bafflement should ensue for any critically thinking person why you think economic choice is then necessarily a bad thing. Why the need for the ban then?

    Of course this does illustrate an important point–unless you are truly a super-genius you can’t anticipate upfront whether something will be more efficient or not, economically. I use LED bulbs is high traffic areas, especially in summer times and in hallways (where the heating isn’t as useful). Without the government push, these’d still be out of reach in terms of cost. So I think it’s great (this is not sarcasm) that the federal government has pushed newer technologies onto the market, which has allowed for their early adaptation.

    But like I said, let the incandescent bulbs stay in the market, let people figure out the most effective strategies for themselves. Any solution taken too far (whether it be free market or government control) is not likely to be optimal.

    1. It’s true that the heat of an incandescent bulb isn’t always wasted, but a gas furnace or a heat pump is still a much more efficient way to heat your home. A gas furnace only loses a few percent of energy in transmission and flu exhaust. Electrical production from fossil fuels is a 25-30 percent conversion with significant losses on transmission. A heat pump gets some of that back by leveraging heat exchange with the ground outdoors.

      Resistance heaters are the least efficient way to heat your home, and a light bulb is a poor version.

      1. In terms of power consumpion, incandescent bulbs are actually great resistance heaters, having around a 98% efficient. I’m not sure how you could possibly think that makes it a “poor version” of a reistance heater.

        Heat pumps have several issues in terms of economic efficiency. It’s true for small interior-exterior temperature differences (say California again), they are a remarkably good choice. However,is they become progressively less efficient as the temperature difference gets larger (so let’s talk Chicago, for example).

        You stil have to heat the entire building with them, so the energy costs associated with waste heat are also large (and this gets worse the bigger the difference from exterior to interior of course and the larger the square footage of your home is compared to the area of the occupied rooms).

        And there’s the question of cost. Note I was discussing ecomomic, not engineering, efficiency here. A typical heat pump system for my home is going to cost me at least $5000. Expect 10-years of life plus lifetime maintenaince costs, you’re probably looking at around $750/year. A light bulb is around a buck of course (or less in bulk).

        The argument about centrally generated power has nothing to do with this argument, since in practice I can generate my own electrical power.

        With natural gas, you still have to ship the gas to your site, and of course it does generate CO2 as a waste product. And since it is not a renewable energy source, this is not a sustainable long term option, in any case.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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