Let’s Ban the Light Bulb Confusion

by Bill Chameides | September 1st, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 17 comments

Today the European Union’s phase-out of incandescent light bulbs kicks in. The same is scheduled to happen in the United States, right? Not exactly.

Some Facts About the Light Bulb

Incandescent lights are the brainchild of Thomas Edison — a watershed invention that profoundly changed the world.

The problem with them is that they are energy hogs — a former colleague of mine refers to them as heaters that give off a little light. Less than 10 percent of the electricity moving through today’s incandescents is converted to light; the rest is wasted. (So, of those 100 watts needed to power that bulb in your reading lamp, only 10 watts produce the light while 90 are wasted as heat, which you know instinctively if you’ve ever touched a bulb that’s been on for a while.) In times when we need to become more energy-efficient, this wasted energy is something we can ill afford.

About 22 percent of all electricity generated in the United States goes to lighting. In our homes, lights account for about 11 percent of household energy or almost 15 percent of household electricity. This translates into about $58 billion we Americans spend annually to keep the lights on. More energy-efficient lighting choices can reduce residential energy use by 50–75 percent.

And so governments around the globe are pushing society away from wasteful lighting options to more efficient versions, thrusting into the spotlight the compact fluorescent. The CFL is by no means ideal — the light quality is not consistently there, some take a while to warm up, many come in weird shapes, and they all require a little mercury to work, at least for now. (See here [pdf], here, and here for details on the mercury issue.)

An Imminent Dark Age for Incandescents?

In 2007 the United States got into the light bulb act with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA 2007): its efficiency standards for most lights in the home and office are to take effect starting in 2012. (See the National Electronic Manufacturing Association/Lighting Controls Association’s summary page for a summary of the law.)

Unfortunately there is an abundance of misinformation about what the law does and doesn’t do. Article after article reports that the act will ban or effectively ban incandescent light bulbs and mandate the use of CFLs. (Just this morning NPR reported that “a similar ban [to Europe’s] is set to begin in the U.S. in 2012.”) Even presidential candidate Barack Obama got into the act on the campaign trail promising to “sign a law that begins to phase out all incandescent light bulbs.”

Thomas Edison’s light bulb allowed more activity to take place after sunset than ever before, but his transformative technology was inefficient then and still is. There’s room to improve this engineering marvel that has become the very symbol of inventiveness.

Not surprisingly, lots of folks who are not especially fond of compact fluorescents are upset. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed entitled “Save the Light Bulb!” decrying the ills of CFLs and urging us all to contact our “elected officials and urge them to re-evaluate our nation’s energy legislation.”

The main problem with such arguments is that the EISA 2007 and its associated rulemakings [pdf] promulgated by the Department of Energy do *not* ban all incandescent light bulbs outright. They establish efficiency standards for all light bulbs sold in or imported into the United States. In the DOE’s own words [pdf]:

“In responding to the question about whether this is a ‘phase-out’ of incandescent technology, it is important to understand that EISA 2007 was not a ’design’ standard, but was rather a ’performance’ standard. While a design standard may have been prescriptive about what technologies should be banned, a performance standard focuses on the service of the product. In this case, EISA 2007 established minimum requirements around amount of light delivered per unit of energy consumed.”

Now, some might argue that even though the act does not actually ban incandescents, it does so effectively because incandescent bulbs at present are not able to meet the standards. The Wall Street Journal jumped onto this bandwagon in its “Bye Bye, Light Bulb” editorial from last year:

“Just like that — like flipping a switch — Congress and the president banned incandescent light bulbs last month. OK, they did not exactly ban them. But the energy bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush sets energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs that traditional incandescent bulbs cannot meet.”

But the operative word here is “traditional,” meaning bulbs available today. The fact is the law does not require today’s incandescents to meet the standards; it requires the incandescent lights of 2012 to meet the standard.

The Dawning of a New Era in Lighting

Technology is not static but is constantly changing and improving. An exception has been the incandescent light bulb. Its efficiency and design have not changed all that much since its invention in the late 1880s. (Inert fill gas replacing the vacuum inside the bulb, tungsten filaments swapped in for carbon ones, and the coil design were all tweaks made by the early 1900s.)

Can the incandescent bulb be improved on now? Almost certainly. Why hasn’t it? Perhaps because of a lack of market forces pushing improvements. And so Congress has promulgated a technology-forcing standard that encourages innovation — in this case toward more efficient lighting options.

At this very moment companies all over the country are busy trying to make a better light bulb that meets the standards. Incandescents are most definitely in the running, as are LEDs (short for light-emitting diodes). CFLs are too (and let’s hope that market forces propel those bulbs toward more consistent quality).

Technology-forcing policies are not new to Americans. For example, in 1970 the Clean Air Act Amendments [pdf] mandated a 90 percent reduction in tailpipe emissions in cars sold in 1975. The cars of 1970 — you might say the era’s traditional cars — were of course unable to meet the standard, and many in the automobile industry claimed they never would. But along came the catalytic converter and the standards were met.

So, despite what you read, I don’t think the federal government’s standards sound the death knell of the incandescent light bulb — it just heralds the birth of a better bulb.

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  1. Peter in Dublin
    Oct 6, 2009

    (continued) The Taxation alternative A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use. We are not talking about banning lead paint here. This is simply a ban to (supposedly) reduce electricity consumption. For those who favour bans, taxation to reduce any such consumption would therefore make more sense, also as governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems. A few dollars/euros/pounds tax that reduces the current sales (USA like the EU 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa) raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice. It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products. When sufficent low emission electricity delivery is in place, the ban can be lifted Taxation is itself unjustified, for similar reaons to bans, it is simply a better alternative for all concerned than bans.

  2. Peter in Dublin
    Oct 6, 2009

    (continued) Supposed savings don’t hold up anyway, for many reasons: onwards = comparative brightness, lifespans, power factors, lifecycles etc with referenced research As for heat effect as mentioned here in the comments, it is indeed of value in temperate climates – see The very fact of working against air conditioning proves the effect in US govmt research, and of course people may prefer ordinary light bulbs for other qualities (or simply switch them to CFLs etc) when using air conditioning. About electricity bills: If electricity use does fall, the power companies have to put up prices to cover their overheads, maintenance costs, wage bills etc (using less fuel doesn’t compensate much in overall costs). As with other consumption, those who use less tend to pay more per unit used (and heavy users get discounts). Emissions? Does a light bulb give out any gases? Power stations might not either: Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use? Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution. Direct ways to deal with emissions, with a focus on transport and electricity: (continued)

  3. Peter in Dublin
    Oct 6, 2009

    Setting efficiency standards is effectively banning products not meeting those standards. Unfortunately just “increasing efficiency” does not necessarily make a product more desirable. Performance, appearance, construction as well as cost and indeed savings can all be affected onwards Put it this way: The ban is wrong not just because CFLs aren’t popular: it is wrong in itself, also for the energy and emissions arguments behind it. Americans (like Europeans) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 8 to 9 times out of 10 (light industry data 2007-8) Banning what people want gives the supposed savings – no point in banning an impopular product! If new LED lights – or improved CFLs etc – are good, people will buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point). If they are not good, people will not buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point). The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway. The need to save energy? Advice is good and welcome, but bans are another matter… ordinary citizens -not politicians – pay for energy, its production, and how they wish to use it. There is no energy shortage – on the contrary, more and more renewable sources are being developed – and if there was an energy shortage of the finite oil-coal-gas fuels, then 1 renewable energy becomes more attractive price-wise 2 the fuel price rise would lead to more demand for efficient products – no need to legislate for it. (continued)

  4. Joe
    Sep 22, 2009

    The banishment of the incandscent bulb is perhaps the greatest insult/threat to people with disabilities that has ever been made. CFL’s emit UV light, which can trigger reactions in people with lupus. Further, there are some people with light sensitivity issues so severe that the flickering and harshness of CFL light triggers immediate and intense migraines. The current incandescent lights do not do this. So, given that there is a product on the market today that allows people with a light sensitivity disability to live comfortably, how can anyone in good conscience take this away from them?

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 25, 2009

      Joe, I suggest that you go back and read the post. The U.S. laws and regulations do not banish the incandescent bulb; they establish efficiency standards for those bulbs. Moreover, incandescent bulbs emit UV light in some cases as much as or even more than CFLs, and both emit much less UV than you find in the outdoors. And you can find flicker-free CFLs.

      • Joe
        Oct 11, 2009

        Thank you for the response, Dr. Chameides. I understand that the law only increases efficiency standards. However, GE has already stated that they have given up development of an incandescent bulb that can meet the new efficiency standards. Effectively, CFL’s will be the law. Regarding the UV from CFL’s, I understand that they emit much less than the sun. However, the UV from CFL’s is still intense enough to trigger lupus flares. If you could experience such a flare, you would understand why this light bulb ban is so cruel. I know there is plenty of innovation yet to come, but to be in a situation where you can only hope for the right bulb to be invented, it is quite nerve-racking.

        • Bill Chameides
          Oct 19, 2009

          Joe: I appreciate your concern. Someone quite close to me has lupus and while CFLs have not been a problem in this case, I am very much aware of the danger of a lupus flare-up. Consider that there are “low-UV” CFLs and CFLs that are encased in glass probably emit less UV. Finally, note that incandescents and CFLs are not the only alternatives. Energy-efficient halogens are already available and LEDs are on the horizon, and I would not write off incandescents just yet.

  5. RTH
    Sep 8, 2009

    “So, of those 100 watts needed to power that bulb in your reading lamp, only 10 watts produce the light while 90 are wasted as heat” – Uhhh – your assumption is that everyone lives in a tropical climate. For 10 months out of the year, using your numbers – a 100 watt lightbulb illuminating my reading material provides 10 watts of light and 90 watts of heat. That’s 90 watts LESS heat I need to provide through another heat source. With CFLs, I’ll need to increase my secondary heat source to compensate for the loss of the “wasted” heat provided by incandescents. So your net sum gain for switching to CFLs is . . . . ZERO. Now throw in that they cost 10 times more, but last only 6 times as long and you’ve just set everyone BACK financially.

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 9, 2009

      RTH, not exactly. First of all, what about the summer months? Hot incandescents require us to keep our air conditioners working harder and longer and use more electricity. Does that make a difference? You bet. EIA reports that in 2007 Americans used about three times the amount of electricity to cool their homes as they did to heat them. And what about the seasons where you don’t heat or cool? Finally, electricity is a very inefficient way to generate heat. Far more efficient is heat generated by furnaces by burning fuel. Bottom line: we are better off by far using lights for light and heaters for heat.

  6. David Henderson
    Sep 2, 2009

    I find it petty and insulting when people suggest that responding to the environmental crisis means using more efficient light bulbs. Mountain tops are being blown up, fisheries are collapsing, there is a pile of plastic the size of TX in the North Pacific Gyre and the once fertile soil of the plains is now a dead zone the Gulf of Mexico. This kind of shallow greenness is just a distraction from the possibility of effective action. Make the rules against environmental destruction, and the increased cost of energy will force the efficiency issue. Make the rules against inefficiency, and the power companies may or may not decide they can afford to quit blowing up mountains now. I’m skeptical.

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 2, 2009

      David, you are of course entitled to your opinion. But it turns out that using more efficient light bulbs will make a difference, albeit a small one. No reason we can’t do the light-bulb thing and also take more significant steps like putting a price on carbon.

      • David Henderson
        Sep 2, 2009

        Dr. Chameides, I’m not saying that it won’t make some difference. I’m worried that putting effort and focus into these small things will make us feel like we are doing something, that its biggest effect will be to undermine motivation and sap energy from substantive change. Focusing on these little things also tends to support a selective and petty environmental moralism. I have a much smaller than average footprint, by living close to work and eating vegetarian. But if I don’t conform on these token issues, then the disproportionate rhetorical emphasis they are given will tend to be alienating and cause resentment. I’m skeptical that the benefit of (present) CFLs is even worth the aesthetic trade-off. But I’m really worried about the burnt political capital. Respectfully, Dr. Henderson

        • Bill Chameides
          Sep 8, 2009

          Dr. Henderson, interesting point. As a counterpoint, consider that some studies show that when individuals take small changes in their personal lives to address an environmental problem, they often become more impatient for and insistent on government action to make the big changes.

        • Dan
          Sep 6, 2009

          As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. CFLs, LEDs, and all other such things are both significant and insignificant. Insignificant from the perspective of the individual and her energy use. Significant because it’s the gateway to a shift in paradigm of how people think about environmental issues. Change in habits and behaviors does not happen over night (with no one!) and if this is the first step, the first stone of the foundation towards a better understanding of our environment, than so be it and we should welcome that. Sure, some people will change their light bulbs and feel like they’ve saved the world. That is one behavior that needs to be changed for the better of everyone. How does living closer to work or not eating meat any different from installing CFLs? Individually, your behavior is not contributing to less pollution from transport or less carbon and methane emitted from not eating chickens or cows. Perhaps this is cognitive dissonance – something we all have. And I’ve never understood the arguments against CFLs. They use less energy for the same output as traditional bulbs and ‘utilize’ less mercury (in a LCA sense). Aesthetics is what always gets me – I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t stare at my bulbs that hang from the ceiling, either when they’re off or on! As for burnt political capital, that’s something that should be taken up with the President. Healthcare should’ve been a more extended battle while climate change (which arguably has larger social, overall costs and negatives) should’ve been pushed by Obama like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps there isn’t.

        • Eli Rabett
          Oct 4, 2009

          Dr. Henderson is wrong for many reasons. First, replacing all current incandescents is not a small thing, it will produce a major decrease in energy use. He misses the obvious parallel with low flush toilets. Decrease demand by increasing efficiency and the utilities will build fewer plants. CFLs were originally introduced and subsidized by the utilities precisely to avoid building new plants, a lesson Henderson has either never learned or tossed down the memory hole. Unlike auto mileage where usage is controlled by individuals and increases in mileage have a partially compensating increase in miles driven, most people don’t have a GW plant in their backyard. Given capital costs and coming carbon emission regulation it is clearly in the utilities benefit to take their least efficient coal plants off line if lighting power demand decreases. His is a very superficial analysis

    • Anna
      Dec 14, 2009

      Though I agree that there are much larger-scale issues on hand, the issue of light bulb efficiency and “greenness” is not petty, as you say. THough this is repeated more often than not-it really IS the small things. If everyone changed their Incandescents to CFLs, not only would individuals’ power bills be significantly lower, but so would the amount of energy as a whole we save. It is more the fact that while there are “bigger” issues on hand, this can’t do any harm…so why not? If I-as an individual- could save the mountains, then I would. But, because I can’t, I’ll stick to composting and CFLs.

    • Eli Rabett
      Oct 4, 2009

      Fluorescents have very little UVB, and even that can be eliminated with a acrylic plastic shield in the home (or a lampshade). Given that sunlight has much more UVB and that all (and I do mean all) commercial and public spaces are lit by fluorescents, this appears to be a rather weak barrier to adopting CFL or other light sources.

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