Dim bulbs

Our view: Furor over energy-efficient light bulbs produces more heat than light

March 07, 2011

There has been a lot of hot air expelled over energy-efficient light bulbs. House Speaker John Boehner criticized President Barack Obama for "giving finger waggling lectures" about them, and commentators Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have attacked Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, the new head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as being a "socialist" and promoting "nannyism" because he co-sponsored legislation that promoted use of the greener bulbs.

A handful of House Republicans have put forth a bill that would stop the nation's switch-over to more efficient light bulbs, a change of lighting habits they contend is unpopular. Charges have been made that one type of replacement bulbs, compact fluorescent lights, contain dangerous levels of mercury. Even the Easy-Bake Oven, a toy that uses a 100-watt light bulb to "cook" edible creations, has entered into the controversy. Since the incandescent bulb the oven uses will be phased out of production starting in 2012, some worry that the Easy-Bake Oven will be history.

All of this — even fear for the fate of the Easy-Bake — is nonsense.

The Energy Independence Act of 2007 does not make owning old incandescent bulbs illegal. Rather, it says that starting next year, manufactured bulbs must meet the standard of being about 25 percent more energy efficient. The compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) meet those marks. But thanks to good old American innovation, other kinds of more-efficient bulbs are appearing in the marketplace. They resemble the shape of the old, incandescent bulbs, and some use 28 percent less energy. They do cost more to purchase than traditional bulbs, but they require less electricity and so are cheaper to use.

Instead of being forced on the American public, energy efficient bulbs are being embraced by them. A poll this month conducted by USA Today and Gallup found that 71 percent of Americans recently bought one or more energy-saving light bulbs, and 84 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with them.

The amount of mercury in a CFL bulb is about 200 times less than the mercury found in old-fashioned thermometers. The mercury is sealed in the bulb, and some manufacturers now make bulbs that are unbreakable. Moreover, when all the mercury math is done, CFLs put less of it in the environment than old incandescent bulbs. That is because power plants, especially coal-fired ones, emit mercury. Since CFLs use less electricity than old bulbs, they demand less power, which helps reduces mercury emissions from power plants.

Recycling CFLs can be a pain — you usually have to return them to the store they were purchased. But that, too, diminishes the amount of mercury released into the environment, and given that CFLs can last for years, the burden isn't so great.

As for the Easy-Bake Oven, it is true that it has so far depended on the heat generated by the incandescent bulb. (Of course, this very fact is evidence of how much energy the old bulbs waste.) But this fall Hasbro, the manufacturer of the oven, will introduce a new model, one that using a conventional heating element, rather than a light bulb, to help fledgling cooks make cakes.

It just goes to show, you can have your cake and your energy efficiency, too.

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