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Let there still be incandescent light

Monday, October 5, 2009
By David Henderson, Special to The Washington Post


What would Thomas Edison say?

Last month, stores in Europe stopped acquiring new stocks of Edison's brilliant invention. In truth, the traditional incandescent light bulb is terribly inefficient: Only about 10 percent of its energy output is in the form of visible light; the rest is emitted as heat. Switching everyone to alternatives such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) will result in fairly significant reductions in energy consumption, which will help Europe meet its targets for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

A similar ban, written into energy legislation a few years ago, is to take effect in the United States in 2012. Though it has distinct improvements over the European legislation, this ban is still a bad idea.

While the European Union outlawed a particular technology, Congress set minimum efficiency requirements for lighting. Old-fashioned (regular) incandescent bulbs do not meet this standard, but by 2012 there may very well be some improved incandescent on the market that will.

That this change is manifest in our daily lives makes it a meaningful and encouraging option, but it should be just that: a voluntary option. Light bulbs are a poor choice for regulation. Is there an overriding reason to regulate how Americans light their homes?

It's true that compact fluorescent lights are widely appreciated among those with heightened “green” sensibilities. They are a welcome option for those who are trying to reduce their environmental impact. Replacing bulbs may be a small measure, but it is also something that can be done by people who may feel powerless or frustrated before the larger problems besetting our planet.

But many people also have a decided dislike of CFLs and will greatly resent the ban. While they may last longer than incandescent bulbs, the upfront cost is high; the light produced is not as bright as that of incandescent bulbs; they are slow to achieve full brightness; the bulbs don't fit in many old lamps; they can't be dimmed; and their lifespan is greatly shortened by using them for less than 15 minutes at a time. The manufacturers of compact fluorescent lights have made improvements on some of these issues, but their reputation is not yet vindicated.

The environmental benefits of using only compact fluorescent bulbs are indirect — and less than what could be realized by changing standards governing, for example, coal use. Consider: The benefit of “reducing inefficiency” depends on where the energy is coming from. Improving efficiency without eliminating a harmful source may just free energy that is then used elsewhere. If there is no net reduction in energy use, where is the benefit? Direct regulation of harmful activities, such as putting firm limits on carbon emissions, is more likely to achieve the desired environmental result. (And this would only indirectly influence my bedroom decor.) A great deal of the wasted energy in lighting comes from excessive nighttime lighting in public spaces, which is an excellent issue for government to address. Banning traditional light bulbs as used in private homes seems an effort in the name of environmental protection that has very little payoff.

There is more political will behind environmental reform than is generally appreciated, but it is not unlimited. We should invest our political capital where it will be most effective, not burn it in compact fluorescents. Congress should regulate matters that require the force of law, such as banning mountaintop removal in coal mining and new coal-burning power plants. Leave people to change their own light bulbs.

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