Jul 31, 2011

Frivolous: Saving the Incandescent Bulb

For some quick background, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) was signed into law in December of 2007. It called for improvements and increases in the efficiency and energy consumption metrics of certain products first proposed in the Energy Policy Act (EPCA) of 2005. Under these two pieces of legislation, consumer goods such as dishwashers, incandescent light bulbs, external power supplies, electric motors, and walk-in freezers (among several others) were all given specific minimum energy conservation requirements they must meet in order to be sold in the United States.

The way the efficiency standards process typically goes in the Department of Energy (DOE) is that a standard is published setting a minimum level of performance for a consumer or commercial product. Once the standard is written into law, manufacturers have a certain period of time, usually on the order of a few years, to ensure their products can meet the new standard. The day the standard becomes active is therefore a few years after it is first published, called the “effective date”. For instance, EISA was published in 2007, but the effective dates for the products it covers range from 2009 to 2014.

EISA requires incandescent light bulbs to increase their efficiency by 27% over the standard 100W bulb – the same design Edison invented 130 years ago. Since incandescent bulbs operate using a high resistance heating element to generate light and therefore lose a significant amount of their energy as heat, they are inherently limited in their efficiency. This 30% required increase in efficiency would effectively eliminate incandescent bulbs from the market using a phased liquidation of the common wattages, starting with the 100W bulb. By 2020, light bulbs will need to be 70% more efficient than current models. Some members of Congress deem this a problem.

About this time in the story comes Texas Representative Joe Barton, who introduced the Better Use of the Light Bulb (BULB) Act in January of this year (2011). The BULB Act was created to block parts of the 2007 efficiency standards that will necessitate the phasing out of the current incandescent bulbs. He is supported by fellow members of Congress like Senator Rand Paul who claims that DOE is telling the American people what they can and cannot buy. Perhaps Paul’s most outrageous claim though is that it is “hypocritical” for the government to “favor a woman’s right to an abortion but you don’t favor a woman or a man’s right to choose what kind of light bulb”. That’s right….he’s comparing abortion to lighting efficiency standards.

On July 13th, the House rejected the BULB Act in a 233-193 vote. Fortunately, a 2/3rds majority was required (i.e. a super majority) in order to repeal the 2007 efficiency standards. They were saved, but only for the moment. Being politicians, fellow Texas Representative Michael Burgess proposed an amendment to strip the funding for the DOE’s enforcement of the 2007 lighting standards just two days later (July 15th) and it passed with a 219-196 result. The amendment did not need a super majority to pass. The net effect is, while the standards will still be in place, DOE no longer has any power to enforce them.

Now comes the portion of this entry where I rant. First of all, we have quite literally been using the same bulb design for more than a century. No technology goes that long without improvements. In fact, several light bulb manufacturers, including the corporation that absorbed Edison’s original company, General Electric (GE), opposed the BULB Act because they have already upgraded their facilities to mass produce more efficient light bulbs for compliance with the 2007 standards. Philips, Cree, and Google were also among the fray because they have already poured large sums of money into research for more efficient lighting.

It is possible to manufacture newer bulbs with the same form factor as the original incandescents. They are, admittedly, more costly, but we are talking about $0.35/bulb for current Edison bulbs versus $3/bulb for the more efficient versions. The savings associated with the amount of energy conserved using the new bulbs will easily offset the higher initial purchase price. By 2015, American consumers will save $6 billion a year based on this simple upgrade. When the program reaches full implementation by 2020, that number could rise as high as $12.6 billion. In time, the price of the newer bulbs will fall into line with the current incandescent rates.

I am literally at a loss to see something like this happen. We are talking about saving huge sums of money while not losing anything in terms of light output, availability, or utility. One of the biggest arguments the BULB Act supporters put forth is that getting rid of the current incandescents would restrict consumer choice, which is absolute garbage. The newer bulbs are just more energy-efficient incandescents and will save consumers money in the long run. Not to mention that the United States is not alone in this effort. In fact, we are bringing up the rear. Brazil and Venezula began phasing out incandescent back in 2005. The European Union, Switzerland, and Australia all started their phase out in 2007, though many of these countries encouraged using more efficient lighting methods far earlier than they became nationally mandated.

I am not an economist and I will be the first one to tell you that I don’t always think about issues from all the angles, but I can tell you that movements like this are holding back a smarter way of life. Twenty percent of the electricity consumed in this country can be attributed to lighting. Just by adhering to these standards, which frankly are not at all strict, we can save the equivalent energy output of 30 power plants. When presented with all these facts, I just don’t understand how we can arrive at this asinine conclusion.


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