You would think that a debate over which light bulbs Americans should use in their homes would not galvanize a nation. Yet, with Congress voting on the BULB("Better Use of Light Bulbs") Act, Presidential aspirants (Michele Bachmann) and political pundits have been trying to shift the debate to the potential impact of energy efficiency standards on individual civil liberties. Yep, that's right. Those cute, curlicue light bulbs you can pick up in a four-pack for $2.97 at the local Home Depot suddenly became a symbol of oppressive government bureaucracy and overbearing federal regulation.
The BULB Act, which narrowly missed being passed by House Republicans, would have rolled back the energy efficiency standards for light bulbs passed by President Bush and the GOP in 2007. Americans would no longer have been required to use energy-efficient bulbs and could still use the old incandescent bulbs. While new energy-efficient bulbs are typically more expensive up-front, over the long-term, they are tremendous cost savers, to the tune of $12.5 billion (PDF) over 9 years, according to the conservation advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Hinting at the win-win nature of new, energy-saving bulbs (cheaper for consumers and good for the environment at the same time), Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, "We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money."
The Battle of the Bulb is strangely reminiscent of the other debates we have seen over green technologies and energy sustainability. Think back to the 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” which outlined reasons why the debates over electric cars should be considered ludicrous. At a time when the price of gas was sky-high and people (as well as the environment) were, ahem, warming to the idea of sleek, energy-efficient vehicles, the concept of the electric vehicle never took hold. The film ends with the conclusion that no single person or entity killed the electric car, because we all did — consumers, bureaucrats, auto companies, politicians and pundits.
If we are to truly create a sustainable energy future in this country, we will need to make the hard choices. What's concerning is that our global competitors are making this look easy. Take the example of Helsinki, which was recently showcased by Monocle magazine as he Most Liveable City in the World. The city has also set a goal of becoming one of the first cities to become completely carbon-neutral by the year 2050. In America, where we squabble over light bulbs, is it even within the realm of possibility — especially given today's contentious environment in Washington — to be talking about such ambitious green technology goals?