GOP: Let there be (incandescent) light

January 16, 2014 

House Republicans are unlikely to call themselves pro-choice – unless they’re talking about the incandescent light bulb.

Efforts to switch off the now-ancient incandescent bulb got a little more complicated this week. Domestic production and importation of all 100-watt bulbs ceased in 2012 when those bulbs failed to meet higher energy standards set by the government.

The same fate awaited all 40-watt and 60-watt incandescents on Jan. 1. But an amendment tucked into the Energy and Water Appropriations section of the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the House Wednesday extends a lifeline to the bulb that households have been using for ages.

The amendment prohibits any federal money from being spent to enforce or implement the higher efficiency light bulb standards. Republicans have been lobbying for this measure for years, apparently assuming that Americans are passionate about their bulbs: “You can pry my 100-watt bulb from my cold, dead hands.”

Of course, anyone dumb enough to hold onto a lit 100-watt bulb should know that their hands wouldn’t be cold for long. That’s one of the primary reasons federal officials planned to phase them out: Incandescent bulbs convert less than 5 to 10 percent of the energy they use into light with the rest of the energy converted into heat.

Incandescents commonly are used to heat brooding houses for poultry. Maybe House Republicans are trying to corner the chicken farmers’ vote.

The GOP probably would like to leave the impression that the so-called ban on incandescent bulbs was the work of socialists in the Obama administration. It wasn’t. The measure was passed in 2007 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

And it was a sensible idea even if he did support it. More technologically advanced bulbs are considerably more efficient than incandescents. While they are more expensive initially, they last longer and save both energy and money over the long run.

For example, compact fluorescent bulbs (the swirly ones) use around 75 percent less energy than an incandescent and can last up to 10 years. Homeowners can recoup the higher up-front costs for the CFLs in less than a year through savings on energy costs.

LED bulbs are another option. While they have a high price tag – $5 to $20 – they use 80 percent less energy than traditional bulbs and last up to 22 times longer.

It is estimated that the average household could save about $50 a year by switching out 15 old incandescent bulbs.

One of the rallying cries of the pro-incandescent crowd is, “Let the market decide!” Ironically, though, the market already has.

U.S. manufacturers, by an large, have switched over to producing the new bulbs. In fact, the light bulb lobby joined with environmentalists in 2007 to support the federal standards to phase out incandescents.

It was a financial calculation on the part of manufacturers. Customers wouldn’t have to buy as many of the more efficient bulbs, but, at less than a buck apiece, the old bulbs weren’t very profitable.

Even with the GOP’s last-minute efforts to save the incandescent bulb, it looks doomed. Most stores that still carry incandescents say they will sell what they have in stock and then deal only in CFLs and LEDs – until something even better comes along.

And that’s another benefit of setting sensible energy standards for bulbs. It encourages innovation and development of new, better and cheaper light sources.

But for diehards – or chicken farmers – incandescents should be available for some time. Hoarders reportedly can pick up a pack of nearly 300 bulbs for around $120 at the big-box stores.

But do the math. There’s no reason to hang on to your incandescents.

In fact, people might call you a dim bulb if you do.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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