Group of House Republicans push pro-incandescent light bulb bill that would net billions for energy industry

Congressman's bill would help energy companies which have a large stake in incandescents
Tuesday, March 01, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Image by Matt MahurinUK newspaper The Guardian this week picked up a story that’s been a source of exasperation for environmental advocates since it broke Monday. The news that the U.S. House had repealed a 2008 initiative replacing plastic and Styrofoam utensils and dishware in the Congress coffee shop was announced via Rep. John Boehner’s press secretary’s Twitter.

The Guardian story frames the decision as a “Those wacky Republicans have done it again!” narrative, casually mentioning toward the end of the article a similar House initiative to roll back a program scheduled to phase out the manufacture of energy-inefficient light bulbs. But it is that bit of legislation that may have much farther-reaching consequences than the type of silverware used in the Congressional coffee shop.

In January, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that is meant to repeal Title III, Subtitle B of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Title III, Subtitle B, a dense, painstaking subsection in a dense, painstaking law, creates regulations on the manufacture and sale of energy-inefficient bulbs.

Specifically, it requires a roughly 25-percent energy efficiency increase in standard-issue light bulbs, to be enforced in phases from 2012 to 2014. It also requires light bulb manufacturers to work toward achieving energy efficiency that is twice current levels by 2020. Because traditional incandescent bulbs are unable to achieve either such improvements, it has often been reported as a total phase-out of all incandescent bulbs across the country. The new bill, dubbed the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, would abrogate the repeal.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), those familiar spiral bulbs, have been shown to have a shelf life ten times that of incandescents, with energy costs around a quarter of those found with the older bulbs. So why are the congressmen behind the bill so in favor of keeping the old, energy-inefficient incandescent bulbs?

Some supporters have said it’s an issue of consumer rights, that people who like the old bulbs should be able to keep buying them. Others have cited safety concerns, saying that the CFL bulbs pose an environmental risk due to the mercury they contain — though the EPA promotes a bulb recycling program, and the trace amounts of mercury contained in the CFL bulbs would in fact add less mercury to the ecosystem than incandescent bulbs do. Their reduced energy usage would slightly mitigate the amount of mercury that coal-burning power plants emit into the air.

Meanwhile, Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.), one of the bill’s sponsors, in a display of what can only be called chutzpah, took something of a constructionist view of invention and called supporters of the new CFLs anti-innovation in an interview with G. Gordon Liddy. He cited the incandescent bulb, whose basic design has gone unchanged for over 100 years, as “one of the greatest innovations in American history.” Incidentally, the only American contribution to the incandescent bulb, a product of work by British, Scottish, German and Canadian scientists, was the development of better filaments by Edison Laboratory researchers and others; the CFL, on the other hand, was invented by American Ed Hammer of General Electric.

The real answer as to why the bill’s sponsors are itching to extend the shelf life of incandescent bulbs may not be so ideological. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that in one year, replacing just one 60-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL results in $7 in energy savings (Microsoft Excel file). Other Department of Energy figures (PDF) state that the average U.S. household has 45 light bulbs across 30 separate fixtures and that there are 116,900,000 households in the country. This means there are 5.26 billion light bulbs across the United States. At present, CFLs hover at a market share just under 30 percent. If that were to go up to 100 percent as a result of the EISA mandate, power companies would stand to lose almost $26 billion in revenue every single year.

Manufacturers like GE have little to lose by introducing and advocating CFLs, because they’re almost six times more expensive than traditional incandescents on average, meaning that over the long term, the decreased frequency with which consumers would have to buy them would be offset by the higher price — and in the short term, such companies would get a massive burst in revenue from Americans switching over. But the energy industry has billions to lose in the conversion — and it’s appealing to its friends in Congress to try to keep that from happening.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who introduced the bill, has close ties to the energy industry. Before his election to office in 1984, he was a consultant for Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Co., and he has made many statements about his disbelief in climate change, including one in which he called wind “God’s way of balancing heat” and suggested that wind farms would disrupt the balance of heat on earth and lead to further global warming. He made headlines in June of last year after he personally apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for what he dubbed a government “shakedown” targeting the oil giant. The “shakedown” he referred to was the BP-underwritten $20 billion fund that President Obama announced would be used to settle claims from those affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Barton retracted his apology after facing an intense media backlash.

The Better Use of Light Bulbs Act has bounced around the House Energy and Commerce committee since its introduction. Barton is the chairman emeritus of that committee. On February 17, 28 senators introduced the bill in the Senate. It remains in committee in the Senate as well. While it certainly may not make it through the Democrat-controlled Senate and would almost certainly get a veto from President Obama if it does in fact make it to his desk, the bill could be a symbolic victory for House Republicans — considerably more so than plastic forks in the Capitol coffee shop.



Comment posted March 1, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

Preserve, Protect and Respect our Planet by Dropping the CO2.

Can we put our political agendas aside and work together on pollution and population control, not climate control? It’s happening anyways as the voters of the world walk away from the CO2 issue but certainly not the pollution issue itself. Climate Control was not about pollution, it was specifically about a CO2 death threat. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over a quarter of a century of climate control instead of needed population control.
Former climate control believers and remaining climate control believers all want the same thing, a sustainable and “civilized” planet, not a planet sustained on fear motivation, just to get people to turn the lights out more often.
It’s a beautiful planet and if we spent as much time loving and experiencing it as we do declaring it dead, we will be real planet lovers then.
SYSTEM CHANGE, not CLIMATE CHANGE If you still think voters will now say YES to making the weather nicer with taxes, YOU are the new denier. The world has walked away from the CO2 mistake. Continued defense of it isn’t helping anyone or the planet and even Obama didn’t mention climate in his state of the union speech. Let’s all get ahead of the curve as history watches us.

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Comment posted March 2, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

Not addressed here is my primary objection to being FORCED to buy CFLs — not one of them is made in the United States of America. For over 20 years I’ve done everything possibly to not buy (or in extremis limit my purchase of) products made in Communist goddamn China. It is harder to do every year. But when the government starts requiring me to buy products made by slaves in China, that’s when I start dousing some lights with my made in USA 30-30.

Jeremy Shipley
Comment posted March 3, 2011 @ 12:21 am

Sorry bud. Polluters are the ones initiating force. When you waste energy, I am FORCED to deal with the consequences of your extra pollution. My primary objection is with being FORCED to deal with your mess, ya old curmudgeon.

Comment posted March 3, 2011 @ 1:23 am

China is bringing a dirty coal fired power plant on line every 11 days. Pollution from these plants is not confined to their hemisphere. Particles from as far away as Tibet regularly reach the North American continent as any student of meteorology or geology could explain to you — if you were capable of logical thought.

Comment posted March 3, 2011 @ 2:47 am

The government needs to just get out of my life!! I will choose what light bulb I want to use-Edison’s or CFL’s-I choose Edison’s!!!!!!!

Comment posted March 3, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

you are obviously a teabagging fool. the reason everything is made in china can be laid at the feet of right wing idiotic republican policy. that asshole bush sold our country to china to pay for his fake war on terror

Zera Lee
Comment posted March 4, 2011 @ 5:41 am

Oh, yes, please. I want the right to drive up energy costs and add to the problems of an already overburdened power grid. By all means let’s undermine cost and availability of electricity and hurt our business competitiveness and profitability, and slow job creation and the recovery even more.
We can snuff that pesky LED lightbulb industry before it’s born, while we are at it. Leave no capacity for Volts!

Zera Lee
Comment posted March 4, 2011 @ 5:41 am

Oh, yes, please. I want the right to drive up energy costs and add to the problems of an already overburdened power grid. By all means let’s undermine cost and availability of electricity and hurt our business competitiveness and profitability, and slow job creation and the recovery even more.
We can snuff that pesky LED lightbulb industry before it’s born, while we are at it. Leave no capacity for Volts!

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Comment posted March 22, 2011 @ 7:36 am

Proponents of fluorescent lights are quick to point out that incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of their input power as heat. CFLs are not 100% efficient, either, but somehow that is never mentioned. A hair dryer uses a lot more power than a light bulb. Some consume 1800 watts, and 100% of that power is “wasted” as heat. Sometimes heat is a beneficial byproduct. Here’s the way I look at it: In the winter, that “wasted” power contributes to the heat in the house, which makes the heater run less. I have an all-electric house, and I figure it costs nothing to run a hair dryer or a computer or an electric blanket in the winter, because all those things are supplementing the output of my central electric heater.

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Comment posted April 9, 2011 @ 11:30 am

Re “big savings from a ban on simple incandescent bulbs”

Regarding the Department of Energy stated savings,
that can be disproved, using their own figures!
The problem, among other factors, is that they include non-incandescent lighting in switchover savings

In fact, less than 1% of US energy use is saved overall, with DOE references,
and consumer savings are also much reduced by CFL “power factor”, lifespan,
brightness etc assumptions, based on non-realistic lab measurements,
as described

Greater – and more relevant – savings of actual “energy waste”,
comes from power plant and grid changes, and from preventing the unnecessary
usage of products eg night lighting in buildings,
rather than from preventing the personal choices of what products can be used.

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