Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Do Light Bulbs Matter?

The edition of USA Today delivered to my hotel room yesterday morning included an interesting point/counterpoint concerning legislation that has been introduced to repeal the federal ban on incandescent lighting and the accompanying mandate for energy-saving light bulbs. Both sides included reasonable arguments but missed some key points. It's also important to recall that Congress did not specifically require the use of the compact fluorescent lights (CFL) that have become a focus of controversy, although it did set lighting efficiency standards that CFLs were best positioned to meet at an acceptable cost. Lost in the process is the larger question of whether the impact of more efficient light bulbs is really worth the associated risks and effort, including the economic and employment dislocation of offshoring a large portion of US light bulb manufacturing.

The lighting standard in question was just one provision of the 310 page Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), which also gave us the national Renewable Fuel Standard and more aggressive vehicle fuel economy rules. The case that the editors of USA Today made in defense of the bill's lighting efficiency provisions, which would be repealed by HR.91, the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, was that it was a small but important step in the direction of saving energy and reducing emissions. They also lauded the bill for eschewing "picking winners" and instead focusing on the outcome of increasing the energy efficiency of lighting by whatever means could achieve that. I'm very sympathetic to that argument, though in this case the deck seems to have been stacked in favor of CFLs, in the absence of another widely-available and low-cost alternative bulb technology compatible with standard screw-in household lights. I'd also question their characterization of the payoff as "huge". I've looked at this before and concluded that the total energy savings involved in the switch amounted to just 2% of our annual electricity consumption--more than offset by higher usage from new devices. Emissions savings looked even smaller, at around 1%. The NRDC analysis cited in the editorial came up with emissions savings of 2%. Either way, more efficient lighting won't turn the US green.

With regard to the CFLs available today we are starting to see evidence that their performance has not measured up to claims, particularly concerning endurance. I have already had to replace a couple of supposedly long-life CFLs in applications involving frequent switching, wiping out any savings that might justify their higher cost. Of much greater concern is the health risk posed by the small quantity of mercury in each bulb. If you've read the EPA's instructions for remediating a room contaminated by a broken CFL bulb, you'd certainly think twice about putting one in any fixture that a child, elderly person or pet might knock over.

In his response to the editors, Representative Barton (R-TX), the author of HR.91, highlighted this risk and emphasized the intrusion of government into what ought to be a normal consumer decision concerning what kind of light bulb to buy. He also cited the transfer of much of the US lighting industry offshore, which is related to the technology of CFL bulbs. The phosphors they use require rare earth elements, for which China is the dominant global supplier. Unsurprisingly, China has gained a leading share of the global CFL industry, and US factories producing incandescent bulbs have closed, leading to higher imports of light bulbs from China and elsewhere.

Time to change course is running short. As of next January 1, the first tranche of the EISA efficiency standard will ban 100-Watt incandescent bulbs, mandating replacements that use at least 28% less energy to produce the same light output. The rules hit standard 75 W bulbs a year later, and 60 W bulbs on 1/1/14.

In my view the problem is less the federal lighting efficiency standard than the fact that CFLs are a poor technology. If it were oil companies, rather than the government, effectively forcing us to put these things in our homes, we would see protests in the streets against the health risks--and by many of the same environmental groups that now back CFLs but are trying to shut down coal-fired power plants that create less mercury exposure than a single broken CFL bulb in your house would. Instead of throwing out the entire lighting standard, we should focus on the most objectionable parts of these rules. Better lighting is on the way, with halogen bulbs now available for more applications, and much more efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) likely to become much cheaper in the future. We should stretch out the deadlines for phasing out incandescents to allow time for that to happen. I'd also like to see a "mercury deposit" charge applied to each CFL to ensure the bulbs are properly recycled at the end of their lives, along with a cigarette-style health warning on the packaging, warning consumers of the hazards. The modest energy and emissions savings CFLs produce simply don't justify overriding consumer choice and prudent judgment about where to use them and where not to.

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