Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Near the end of 2007, then-President George W. Bush signed into law an energy bill that mandated new efficiency standards for light bulbs. When I blogged about it back then, I thought it was a relatively uncontroversial provision of the law. After all, everybody likes to shave a few bucks off their electric bill, don’t they? If my elderly mother could have seen the wisdom in “investing” in a few fluorescent bulbs back in the 1990s — some of which were still operating a decade after her death — wouldn’t the younger generations flock to the new technology?

Alas, making the simple light bulb more efficient is more politically complicated than it sounds.

Last year, I started reading news reports that the shift from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) was abetting the shift of manufacturing from the United States to other nations. U.S. factories that were making the type of bulbs invented by Thomas A. Edison were shutting down, and most of the CFLs that Americans buy are made in China or other Asian countries.

(I should insert a note here that the energy bill mandated STANDARDS in terms of lumens of output per watt of energy input — not the type of bulb that should produce this output. As a practical matter, though, CFLs and LEDs generate a lot less waste heat than incandescent bulbs. If anybody figures out how to up Edison’s ante by making a more efficient incandescent bulb that wastes less heat, he or she would become an instant zillionaire!)

As the clock ticks down to the implementation of the standards, starting in 2012 (a presidential election year!) and going through 2014, we will start seeing changes — and the inevitable confusion. Not everybody knows this is happening, of course. People who are used to thinking of the “100-watt bulb” now have to consider the output in lumens instead. (I do like the quote in this article: “What other industries can you find where the product developed a hundred years ago is still the number one seller?”)

Even though the current chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), co-sponsored the lighting energy standards part of the 2007 law, the Washington Post has reported that he’s reconsidering those standards. His online bio certainly doesn’t mention them (even though the POTUS who signed the original energy bill was a Republican…).

Then last week the New York Times published an article that focused/highlighted/[insert your favorite “light” pun-word here] on the nay-sayers to the lighting efficiency regulators. The story is filled with tales of incandescent-bulb stockpiling and repeal efforts. Even the Easy-Bake Oven, which I remember fondly from my childhood, is getting a makeover. (Really, though, in this day and age, why would anybody want to give their kid a toy oven that requires a fragile, easily broken glass bulb as a heating element?) The NYT article garnered more than 250 comments, many of them fretting about the mercury content about CFLs or their possible effect on people with epilepsy or autism.

As you can see from today’s “Room for Debate” on nytimes.com, the light-bulb issue is getting politicized, with libertarians and Tea Partiers bleating loudly against federal standards. But I ask: If not the federal government, then who is going to draft the standards? A “free market” is going to make bulbs (or any other kind of widgets) to satisfy the needs of the biggest customer or market, so if California’s standards are tougher than North Dakota’s, then “tough toenails” to the residents of the latter state. (By the way, California is implementing the lighting-energy standards a year ahead of the feds.) And I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to have a bazillion different non-standard, unregulated products on the market, so that (a) a lamp made by XYZ Company requires only bulbs made by XYZ Company because nothing else will fit, and (b) a lot of lamps on the market are just plain hazardous.

I’m certainly sympathetic to people with long-term physical and mental health challenges, and I dislike the fact that America hasn’t figured out how to manufacture CFLs in its own factories. But I think we all need to step back from our own little cocoons and see the long-term energy crisis that faces us all, and then do our part to ease the crisis. The recent news from Japan and the Middle East should have given us all a wider perspective.

Please read the “Room for Debate” essays, even though some of the material may set your teeth on edge, and then please feel free to comment below (keeping it polite, of course).

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