In praise of the energy-saving lightbulb

Last week I opened the Guardian website to twice find news on the Republican efforts to repeal a law that promotes the use of energy-saving lightbulbs in US households. While I tend not to agree with most measures supported by the Republican Party, I was still shocked by this particular one. Energy-saving lightbulbs? What the hell is wrong with energy-saving lightbulbs?!

Well, according to Tea-Party supporter and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, energy-saving lightbulbs are an assault on personal freedom and an insult to the inventor of traditional 100 watt bulbs, Thomas Edison.

The lightbulb fight has its roots on a 2007 law promoting energy efficiency. The law, initially supported by Republicans and signed by George Bush, was aimed at raising efficiency standards of conventional lightbulbs by more than 25% by 2012. It is supported by manufacturers, such as Philips and General Electric, who have already spent considerable amounts retooling their factories to produce more efficient LED and compact fluorescent bulbs.

Tea Party supports, however, have (misleadingly) publicized the law as a ban on the old Edison bulb. Radio host Rush Limbaugh went as far as saying that “They’re coming for your lightbulbs, America, and you’ll be forced to fill your house with those weird, screwy things,” according to Jon Winsor writing for The Intersection.

Does Limbaugh know how much better, environmentally and economically, those “weird, screwy things” are? Yes, they do cost more than the old-fashion bulbs. But they last about 50% longer and are more efficient, meaning they provide the same amount of light for a fraction of the energy consumed by traditional lightbulbs. In all, they are expected to save each American household $100 to $200 per year. According to Reuters, they also “prevent 100 million tons of heat-trapping gases from being spewed into the air” (the equivalent of emissions from 17 million cars).

The ballon-shaped bulbs will still be available, but they will either be more efficient incandescent (traditional) lamps or LEDs designed to look like old-fashioned bulbs. The California-based Switch Lightning, for example, has come up with a LED bulb that imitates the glow of an incandescent lamp. Far from being a threat to personal freedom, the new standards have driven advances in lighting technology that are giving consumers more choice than ever.

As for the argument that the 2007 law would be an affront to Thomas Edison, his great-grandsons Barry Edison Sloane, Heywood Soane and David Edison Sloane weighted in to provide an opposite view. According to Reuters, Edison’s descendants agreed that he “would have been appalled that any legislative body would be narrow-minded enough to discourage advanced light bulb technology.”

Even though arguments to repeal the 2007 law are unfunded, Republicans declared “victory for freedom” when the House of Representatives voted to remove all funding from government programs promoting energy-efficient bulbs. Fortunately, the measure is unlikely to pass in the Senate where Democrats are mobilizing against it. The White House has also indicated it will oppose any effort to repeal the 2007 law.

Some Republicans are with the Senate Democrats and Obama on this. Jim DiPeso, policy director with Republicans for Environmental Protection, said (in an interview to SolveClimate news) about the proposal to repeal the law: “It’s a daffy solution in search of a non-existent problem. There is no ban and there never has been one. It’s the same quality of service, lower costs and more consumer choices than ever. What is there not to like?”

544px-Compact-Fluorescent-Bulb.jpg

A compact fluorescent light bulb. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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6 thoughts on “In praise of the energy-saving lightbulb

  1. Nicolas Fanget

    Coming from Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck hardly anything surprises me. But this ties in with their belief that anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening. Or if it is, it is the will of Jesus, and therefore any attempt to reverse/mitigate it is socialism.

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  2. Barbara Ferreira

    @Nicolas: Your comment really made me laugh! The Jesus part that is, not the lack of belief in man-made climate change, that’s just silly. It is truly a shame that so many ill-informed Americans believe in everything those three say.
    @Joern: Many thanks for pointing out the article you wrote about this issue, and for mentioning my post in it!
    I agree with pretty much everything your wrote. Obviously small measures like changing lightbulbs in your home are not enough to move to a more sustainable world, and people should be aware of that (although, I agree, many aren’t). However, I don’t think these small things (another example is changing to re-usable shopping bags) "stop us from reflecting and looking a little harder what actually needs to be done," to quote you.
    Think about those who only use re-usable bags because it is fashionable. Of course they aren’t really reflecting about what else they could be doing to make their way of life more environmentally sustainable. But they also wouldn’t be thinking about it if they weren’t using re-usable bags. And, at least this way they aren’t using plastic bags!
    It’s the difference between doing nothing and doing, say, 1%. It’s not good enough, but it’s something. And I don’t think that 1% is preventing us from doing more. It is certainly not preventing me!

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  3. Nicolas Fanget

    I love the plastic bag debate because it easily shows how complex the issues are. I have re-usable bags, and I love them because I can do a big shop and carry it home without having my fingers sliced off by the flimsy bag handles. However, I have started to buy bin liners, because I do not have enough plastic bags to line my bin with. The change for the environment is nil. What might make a difference is if I could go to the supermarket with a trailer (I already cycle to work most days), but to get there I have to cross the North Circular, also known as The Ring of Doom by cyclists. I am willing to stick my neck out for the environment, but just not quite that far.

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  4. John Huesman

     It seems funny to me that a supposed Ph.D. in physics wouldn’t know that CFLs contain mercury…or maybe you just chose to ignore that fact to make your rant seem more plausible?
    Here is a statement from the U.S. E.P.A. (epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html) (emphasis added by me)
     
    Before cleanup 

    Have people and pets leave the room.
    Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment. 
    Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
    Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb: 

    stiff paper or cardboard;
    sticky tape;
    damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
    a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

    During cleanup

    Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
    Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

    After cleanup

    Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
    If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.

    But it helps to also keep in mind what the EPA says about mercury in general: (emphasis in original)
     

    Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
    Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
    Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
     
    Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By "direct contact," we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing, for example, if you break a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing.
    Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

    Also, most municipalities require that you take old CFLs to a recycling center and not just dump them in the trash because the mercury builds up in the landfills. 
    So, do you still want to make this out to be "crazy right-wingers wanting to hurt the environment" or can you bring yourself to admit that there may just be something behind not wanting to force everyone to use these things?

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  5. Barbara Ferreira

    @John: I do know that CFLs contain mercury, and I didn’t choose to ignore that when writing the blog post. But it happens that I write about new facts, and what was new here were recent Tea-Party arguments against energy-saving lightbulbs. The two Guardian articles I mentioned at the very beginning of the post, which served as inspiration for the text, didn’t mention mercury, indicating to me that wasn’t the reason why Tea-Partiers were against CFLs.
    What I find incredible is that YOU chose to ignore the warning given by U.S. E.P.A. on that very page you linked to, simply to make your arguments more valid:
    “These steps are precautions and reflect best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL.  If you are unable to follow them fully, don’t be alarmed.  CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury — less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer.”
    Of course CFLs aren’t perfect but, all things considered, they are a lot better for the environment (and, indirectly, human health) than incandescent lightbulbs, even taking into account their (minuscule) mercury content. Here’s a E.P.A. graph that compares mercury emissions by light source to prove it.

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