When 2011 crosses over to 2012, the 100-watt incandescent light bulb will no longer be legally sold in the United States. The 75-watt and 60-watt bulbs will follow in respective years. The government wants us to use more energy-efficient lighting, and some folks are hoarding the old light bulbs in advance of the ban while others mock them for exercising the right to pay higher electric bills. How did this all happen? Are the alternatives to incandescents really better? And what marked my journey from sympathizing with the hoarders, to distancing myself from them, to actually becoming one of them?
It all started with the Energy Independence And Security Act of 2007, which like most cleverly named government omnibuses, had little to do with its title. (Yes, this was the same ginormous energy bill that kicked the ethanol boondoggle into hyperdrive, all under the guise of greening the planet.) The new Democratic Congress passed the bill, and it was signed into law by that freedom-hating government-abusing President known as… George Bush. (Just keep that in mind when you complain about this law at your tea parties.)
At first glance, opposing this seemed like a no-brainer. Is the government really telling us what kind of light bulbs we can buy? The overall energy savings from this aren’t really that great (compared to say, changes to all the cars we drive or something), and it’s not even very targeted from a progressive perspective – the poorest will be the most hurt by a huge increase in light bulb costs (Even if more efficient bulbs pay for themselves over time, there’s a big difference between initially lighting your house for a few bucks and lighting it for a hundred bucks.) And to top it off, the “better” light bulbs were truly horrible in every way besides the amount of energy they used – CFLs emit a poorer light color, don’t turn on instantly, contain mercury that must be handled if broken, lose their life span if turned on and off a lot, don’t perform as well in cold weather… the list goes on and on. Just like with ethanol, this seemed to be a classic case of the government picking and choosing options based on good intentions (or perhaps good lobbying?) that actually lead to worse outcomes for everybody, and saving neither money nor energy. A government boondoggle at its worst.
Yet maybe things weren’t so simple. The incandescent light bulb is truly an inefficient source of light. “Approximately 90% of the power consumed by an incandescent light bulb is emitted as heat, rather than as visible light.” (Of course, this has a side benefit of providing extra heat in cold climates, but I suppose it cancels out by increasing the costs of cooling in hot climates.) With new light bulbs better designed to emit light, we’re not just talking about savings of a few degrees here, but savings of three-quarters or even chopping a whole digit off the end. As the conservative outcries increased in volume – along with anecdotes of hoarding the old light bulbs – I would occasionally see liberal editorials remarking amusedly that only those crazy anti-government folks would go out and buy a lunch of light bulbs so they could spend more money on energy. Would they really rather pay higher electric bills to avoid doing something to save the environment?
Paul Krugman had an editorial a couple years back arguing that conservatives say we don’t need to worry about running out of natural resources because the market will take care of it. Well, he argued, if the market can cope with natural restrictions, can’t it also cope with artificial restrictions imposed on it? This was an interesting concept – of course the costs of working around these restrictions might be higher than they would be otherwise, but maybe an optimal outcome could still be reached. And the market did seem to be responding. They were apparently coming up with CFLs that turned on quicker and had better light color. (And maybe the mercury is not so dangerous after all? Still makes me a bit queasy, though. I’m trying to start a family soon, you know.) And LEDs – a truly superior light technology – were getting better and cheaper too, and solutions were being found for their own drawbacks (such as a lack of omnidirectional light output). Maybe the market really could take care of the drawbacks of more efficient light bulbs – and thanks to the guaranteed demand for them that would come when incandescents were phased out – maybe it was coming faster than it would have otherwise. Maybe “nudge” works. I could still oppose the government intervention in principle – but if the outcome wasn’t going to be so horrible, well, I could admit that, too. It’s not like they were banning lemonade stands or something. Maybe I didn’t need to, you know, hoard light bulbs like a crazy person.
So last weekend I realized that we were less than six months away from the onset of this light bulb ban. Whatever technology is in stores now probably won’t get that much better by January. So the wife and I trekked out to our local Walmart, where I figured we could try out some of the latest and greatest light bulbs on the market, and also buy a few boxes of the old kind in case we didn’t like it – you know, just to hold us over until the new technology took care of the remaining hurdles and got a little cheaper, too.
Well, Walmart had plenty of CFLs (all with “contains mercury” stamped on the back), but I knew I didn’t want any of them. But there was an LED section, too. LED night lights, LED chandelier lights… surely there was a standard 60W/75W/100W incandescent light socket replacement on the market by now, right?
Nope. Not a single one.
The general technology was definitely there, but mostly at smaller outputs. It hasn’t quite made it to the larger wattages yet – and of course, those are the first that are going away. Shocked by Walmart’s lack of inventory, I pulled out my iPhone. Home Depot has a 60-watt replacement LED with over forty, uh, glowing reviews. (They are all pretty much variations of: “Wow! This replaced my incandescent and it’s awesome and so much better than those sucky CFLs!”) And that costs $40. OK… if it’s replacing a 30-cent bulb and uses 1/10th of the energy and lasts 10 times as long… that’s almost worth it. Almost. If it really lasts that long. But I’m not going to spend $400 to replace my whole house like that!
And that’s just a 60-watt. Amazon has a 100-watt replacement for $50, but based on the reviews it sounds like it hasn’t taken care of some of the basic characteristics that make incandescents superior. Is there really no commercially available, affordable, suitable alternative to the old energy burner? With just over five months to go?
Then what could I do but start hoarding 100-watt light bulbs?
Now look, we only bought a couple boxes. We only use 100-watts in a few places and will probably see if we can get by with 75’s. Hopefully by 2013 when those are illegal, there will be a suitable LED replacement. I’m not trying to waste energy. I’m even going to try some of those LED chandelier lights in our new ceiling fan… why? Because it might save me money – and conserve energy at the same time. But I can’t do that yet with the bigger bulbs. The new ones just aren’t good enough yet.
This is what happens when government tries to get involved in deciding what you should buy. They subsidize the use of ethanol because they think it’s more energy efficient – and then suddenly the price of corn doubles and then it turns out that the process of creating ethanol doesn’t even save energy anyway. They ban the use of incandescent light bulbs because they think it’s for the greater good – but the alternatives are still physically inferior. The problem is that the government has less information than the market, and doesn’t act on updated information as quickly. It’s all well and good when it tells you or encourages you to buy something that it thinks is better for you when it’s actually better. But the problem with the government deciding what’s better for you is that sometimes they get it wrong. I never wanted to be a light bulb hoarder, and I don’t think I will be for long, but if I’m going to decide what’s best for me instead of the government, it’s the only thing I can do.