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A Nation of Dim Bulbs

The nasty little surprise hidden in the new energy bill.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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On December 19, President Bush signed an energy bill that will, among many, many other things, force you to buy a new kind of light bulb. He did this because environmental enthusiasts don't like the light bulbs you're using now. He and they reason, therefore, that you shouldn't be allowed to have them. So now you can't.

Ordinary consumers may be surprised, once they understand what's happened. They probably haven't known that the traditional incandescent light bulb, that happy little globe shining so innocently from the lamp in the corner, has been a scourge of environmentalists for many years. With their stern and unrelenting moralism, the warriors of Greenpeace have even branded lightbulb manufacturers "climate criminals" for making incandescents, which are, they say, a "silent killer." In Europe and in a few individual states in the U.S., professional environmentalists have managed to persuade their colleagues in government to ban the bulbs altogether, on the grounds that incandescents use energy inefficiently.

Ninety percent of the energy a traditional light bulb uses, for example, is thrown off as heat rather than light. This waste contributes to the overproduction of energy from coal-fired power plants, which contributes to the emission of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. Professional environmentalists prefer a different kind of bulb, the compact fluorescent light (CFL), which is much more expensive to make and to buy but also much more efficient in its use of energy.

American environmental groups have long called for an outright national ban on the old-fashioned bulbs. But then they came to the realization, as a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times this spring, that such a ban might "anger consumers." "We've given up a sound bite, 'ban the incandescent,'" the spokesman said.

Instead the groups joined with the Bush administration this year in advocating a steady increase in federally mandated efficiency standards for light bulbs. The effect of the tightened standards is to make it illegal to manufacture or sell the inefficient incandescent bulb by 2014. So it's not a ban, see. It's just higher standards. Which have the same effect as a ban--a slow-motion ban that's not really a ban. Not surprisingly, in long, self-congratulatory remarks at the bill signing last week, Bush neglected to mention that he and Congress have just done away with the incandescent light bulb. Maybe most of us won't notice until he's back in Crawford.

Some people really like the new bulbs, of course. Not all of them are professional environmentalists, though all of them are cheapskates. CFLs produce the same amount of light (lumens) as an incandescent bulb while using only about a quarter of the watts. With proper care and moderate use, they can last as much as six times longer than a typical incandescent. Even if you consider their higher purchase price--six or seven times the price of a traditional bulb--CFLs can lower your monthly lighting bill by as much as 20 percent. And because they're deemed environmentally sensitive, switching them on can give you the same hard-to-define feeling of exaltation you get shopping for organic vegetables at Whole Foods. Then you can donate the money you've saved on your electric bill to the Natural Resources Defense Council or the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

Other people, however, perhaps a very large number, will prefer the old, pre-Bush bulbs. Their reasons have less to do with the wonderfulness of the incandescent and their disdain for environmentalists than with the inconveniences of the CFL. The new bulbs are particularly vulnerable to extremes of temperature, for example; you won't want to use them in your garage in winter. CFLs are also 25 percent longer in size than the average incandescent. This makes them unsuitable for all kinds of lighting fixtures--particularly chandeliers and other ceiling lights--which will have to be either discarded or reconfigured, at considerable expense, after the Bush ban goes into effect. You can't use most CFLs with dimmer switches, either; ditto timers. Newer models that can be dimmed and are adaptable to timers will require you to buy new CFL-compatible dimmers and timers.