Lightbulbs only being reinvented
Remember the venerable incandescent lightbulb? Turns out that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. With so many big things to worry about - Mideast wars, Japanese tsunamis and meltdowns, a fragile economy - it's amazing that battles over an everyday technology draw headlines. But that's what has happened as congressional Republicans have turned a 2007 law setting standards for lighting efficiency into an ideological lightning rod.
Remember the venerable incandescent lightbulb? Turns out that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
With so many big things to worry about - Mideast wars, Japanese tsunamis and meltdowns, a fragile economy - it's amazing that battles over an everyday technology draw headlines. But that's what has happened as congressional Republicans have turned a 2007 law setting standards for lighting efficiency into an ideological lightning rod.
Rep. Joe Barton, a Texan who has proposed one version of the law's repeal, says bulb standards are "manipulating the free market." Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, complained at a recent hearing about energy- and water-use standards for lighting, refrigerators, and toilets and said, "You can't go around your house without being told what to buy."
You can decide for yourself whether it was overreach when Congress and former President George W. Bush enacted efficiency standards for lightbulbs, much as other laws since the 1980s have set standards for autos and appliances. With so many good reasons to reduce energy demand, and the market plainly needing a nudge in the right direction, it seems to me like a good use of government.
But this tempest-in-a-teapot is being fueled by some genuine confusion or misinformation, such as when Rep. Michele Bachmann, author of the proposed Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, rails against the "forced phaseout of incandescent lightbulbs."
Let's set the record straight.
Yes, the traditional version of the 125-year-old incandescent lightbulb won't meet the new efficiency standards set to begin taking effect in January.
But no, incandescent bulbs aren't totally vanishing. They are being reinvented by lightbulb makers, including three market leaders: General Electric, Philips, and Osram Sylvania. In fact, Sylvania is making a high-efficiency version of the familiar bulb in Pennsylvania. A plant in Wellsboro, Tioga County, makes the glass, and the bulbs are assembled in St. Marys, Elk County.
So why is there so much confusion - not to mention so many new choices in the lighting aisle of the hardware store or home center?
Ironically, it's partly a sign of policymakers' success - especially the decision to set "technology neutral" standards rather than to choose one technology or another.
There had already been a burst of lighting innovation in recent years, partly stemming from utilities' needs to meet states' goals for limiting growth in energy demand.
Lighting consumes about 15 percent of household electricity, so it was an obvious target. Old-fashioned lightbulbs, largely unchanged since Thomas Edison's era, were low-hanging fruit. Led by California utilities, power companies such as Peco Energy Co. discovered that subsidizing sales of more efficient bulbs was an efficient way to meet their goals. (For information on Peco's program: http://go.philly.com/pecobulbs.)
"Utilities realized it was cheaper to buy energy savings than to build new power plants," says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The greatest savings so far come from compact fluorescents, which use about 75 percent less energy than an old-fashioned bulb and earn the government's Energy Star rating. More recently, bulbs based on light-emitting diodes - the same LEDs used in computers and TV screens - have promised even deeper savings.
But a bulb doesn't have to meet the Energy Star standard to meet the federal law's requirements, which start next year by requiring manufacturers to replace the standard 100-watt bulb with a bulb that's at least 28 percent more efficient.
This is where things get confusing. Nomenclature such as the "100-watt bulb" is so ingrained that, for the foreseeable future, most of us will continue to think in those terms, even though wattage measures power consumed, not light produced. Light output is measured in lumens.
Sylvania is making a product line in St. Marys that it calls the Halogen SuperSaver, which includes a "100-watt replacement" bulb that lasts for 1,000 hours, uses 72 watts of energy, and produces 1,490 lumens - the minimum necessary to qualify.
GE and Philips make similar versions of the new bulb: the GE Halogen and the Philips EcoVantage.
So far, halogen gases are the key to making the new incandescents work. They use the same tungsten filament as a standard incandescent. But rather than glowing in the vacuum of a traditional bulb, the filament glows inside a smaller capsule filled with halogen gas, which enables the filament to burn brighter. Surrounding the capsule is a traditional bulb.
The limits of the new technology aren't yet clear. Horowitz says at least two companies, including Ohio's Technical Consumer Products, have announced plans to sell halogen-capsule incandescents that cut energy usage by 50 percent.
Nor is pricing, which virtually always drops as technologies mature. But you can already save money with the new bulbs, even if not as much as with compact fluorescents.
Horowitz says replacing a traditional 100-watt bulb with a $2 compact fluorescent should save more than $50 in energy costs over a 6,000-hour life span. "One would be hard-pressed to find another investment that has this type of return or environmental benefit," he says.
During its 1,000-hour life span, the Philips EcoVantage would save a typical user closer to $3 or $4 - or a little less, given that its suggested price of $1.49 is nearly $1 more than many old-style incandescents. But in exchange, you'll get a bulb with qualities many people value in a traditional incandescent: full brightness instantly, dimmability, and no mercury to worry about. All told, the new standards eventually are expected to save $10 billion a year in energy costs.
Almost any way you slice them, the new bulbs are a good deal: for consumers, for the environment, and for spurring business innovation.
Just not for enlightening our political discourse.