Let's turn on the light of innovation

The disconnect between the rhetoric in Washington and the march of the marketplace has been particularly dramatic when it comes to something we all use every day—light bulbs.  Often considered the lowest of the low-hanging fruit by energy efficiency advocates, compact fluorescent light bulbs seem like a pretty basic advancement.

The facts aren’t up for much debate:  Traditional incandescent bulbs – little changed  since Thomas Edison invented them -- give off nearly 90 percent of their energy as heat and thus not only provide inefficient light but also increase cooling bills this time of year.   A single CFL can save up to $65  in energy costs.

Back in 2007, then-President George W. Bush signed an energy bill passed with bipartisan support. It included a requirement that light bulbs be 30 percent more efficient by 2012. A new analysis estimates that when the standards are fully in place in 2020, they will save American consumers more than $12.5 billion annually and eliminate the need for 33 large polluting power plants.

Traditional incandescent bulbs won’t pass the standards, so a campaign was launched that started to characterize the efficiency standards as some kind of Big Brother bullying.

Here’s an example of the argument from a press release: “The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to the government telling them what kinds of light bulbs they can and cannot buy,” said Myron Ebell, Director of Freedom Action.  “The fight to repeal the light bulb ban has become a classic battle of the people versus big business special interests and their environmental pressure group allies.  Freedom Action’s Free Our Light campaign has helped make the voices of American voters heard in Washington and Congress has started to listen.”

The effort to repeal the  standards failed to win a two-thirds majority in the Republican-controlled House, but the chamber did endorse stripping funding to enact the efficiency law  on a voice vote late last week.

Meanwhile, as with other energy efficiency products, the march of industry progress continues.

Companies are making better CFLs and even making an incandescent bulb that meets the standards. Others are moving quickly to advance the even more efficient LED lighting technology, and rapidly bringing down its costs.

 Despite the D.C. rhetoric, companies  are finding customers interested in lowering their bills and shrinking their carbon footprints through better technology. Most big box home improvement stores have CFL recycling programs to keep the tiny amount of mercury each contains out of landfills. Attendees at county fairs crowd tables for a free  CFL, courtesy of their rural electric cooperative.

News of better products and falling prices breaks daily. For example, here’s an excerpt from a press release that hit my inbox today from Sea Gull Lighting:
“With lighting accounting for 15% of the energy bill, according to the Department  of Energy, many consumers are looking to make wise choices in lighting selection – looking for both design and sustainability in products…. The Ambiance LED task lighting offers the latest in LED technology, delivering a long life of up to 40,000 hours. It also delivers maximum brightness using up to 85% less energy (4 times more efficient than halogen light sources). The light source is dimmable and its miniature profile fits seamlessly anywhere – under shelves, overhead cabinets and retail displays.  The unit also contains no harmful mercury, making it easy and safe to use. ''

Policymakers who aren’t supporting the vast economic potential of a clean energy future are rushing headlong towards the past.  In this round, they turned off innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit of those who do understand the importance of building a better light bulb.

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