THE RIGHT WING of the political spectrum is incandescent on the subject of light bulbs. The government, the charge is, shouldn’t require Americans to buy certain types of bulbs. Aiming to prevent this, the House is set to vote Tuesday on legislation that would repeal federal lighting efficiency standards, which passed with wide bipartisan support in 2007 and are scheduled to kick in next year.
But the 2007 law doesn’t require Americans to buy compact fluorescents or any other type of light bulb. All Congress has done is set a national standard for how much power it takes to produce a certain amount of light. And there’s good reason to demand improved efficiency; about 90 percent of the energy that traditional incandescent bulbs use is given off as heat, not light.
The law has had an impressive effect: Light bulb manufacturers have invested heavily in developing new bulbs that use much less electricity, turn on immediately, work with dimmers and produce soft white light. Already, there are familiar incandescent bulbs that meet the federal standards, and there are other types widely available that are much more efficient.
Bulbs that meet the federal standards are more expensive than older ones. Nevertheless, Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, estimates that replacing a traditional 75-watt incandescent bulb with one of its latest light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs would save a household $160 in energy costs over its life. The company also reckons that replacing just the 90 million or so 75-watt incandescent bulbs sold in America annually with these advanced bulbs would reduce yearly energy use by 5,220 megawatts, saving $630 million and 3.26 million tons of carbon emissions — comparable to taking a million cars off the road. Not all Americans will choose to invest in one of Philips’s extremely efficient new bulbs, but, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates, under the federal standards, the average family’s energy bill should drop by about 7 percent a year.
Republicans have a point that federal mandates aren’t always the most cost-effective ways to reduce energy use or carbon emissions. Yet they also vehemently oppose more attractive measures such as carbon taxes, which would enlist consumer demand to direct the development of more efficient products. Particularly with the most rational policies off the table, a government nudge to produce better light bulbs is an easy way to save energy.