Let’s Ban the Light Bulb Confusion
by Bill Chameides | September 1st, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
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.”
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.filed under: faculty
and: Clean Air Act, compact fluorescent light bulbs, energy-efficient light bulbs, incandescent light bulbs, lighting, National Public Radio, Thomas Edison, Wall Street Journal