An editiorial in today's Washington Post, Let There Be (Incandescent) Light, declared, "Banning traditional light bulbs as used in private homes seems an effort in the name of environmental protection that has very little payoff." Earlier, the author, David Henderson, a teacher of environmental ethics in the philosophy and religion department at Western Carolina University, stated and asked, "Light bulbs are a poor choice for regulation. Is there an overriding reason to regulate how Americans light their homes?"
I have a different view. There is a larger payoff than Henderson recognizes. First, environmental concerns — reducing power plant emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases — is not the only benefit gained from energy conservation standards. They are not even the primary benefit recognized by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which is the statute that regulates lighting efficiency. Economic benefits to utilities who are able to avoid capital costs and ordinary expenditures because of reduced electricity consumption from more efficient lighting can be substantial. Lower utility bills to consumers and businesses can be substantial as well; the relative total cost to the consumer of owning and operating a more energy efficient compact fluroescent lamp over its life versus a traditional incandescent lamp favor the compact fluorescent lamp. Yes, the CFL is different from incandescent lamps: acquisition costs are higher, there are differences in the color of the light, and generally they have not been dimmable, but product innovation is underway and will continue and prices have been coming down significantly as production and sales volume have increased. Consumers have many more choices today with CFLs than they did just a couple of years ago, and consumers should take a look at the variety and quality of some of the CFLs now on the market, and remember that a higher price may represent additional value in the product.
The cost of shifting production away from incandescent lamps to other lighting products is borne largely by the lamp manufacturers and the towns with factories that will no longer be manufacturing incandescent lamps. One of those costs is research and development, but that may generate benefits down the road from innovative lighting products that consumers find even greater value in. Lamp manufacturers are already engaged in that race.
The public can thank our organization, NEMA, for that. Initial proposals in States and to Congress here in the U.S. were similar to the incandescent product ban that recently went into effect in Europe. The US Congress, encouraged by NEMA and its lamp manufacturer members, took a different approach: regulate the performance of the lamp; do not specify which products or technologies manufacturers can make and sell and consumers can buy. Banning the "traditional" light bulb — the "A" line incandescent lamp that is still available on the U.S. market today but will be phased out beginning in 2012 — merely banned an inefficient lamp, which will mean significant economic benefits to electric utilities and utility customers, allow consumers to spend their money on other things beside electricity, and encourage the development of innovative lighting products and possibly more efficient incandescent lamps. So let there be light — incandescent light, fluorescent light, and light emitting diodes — and may the best products win.
And, oh by the way, the regulation of lamp efficiency will reduce the output of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants if consumers and businesses will buy and use more energy efficient lamps. Henderson suggests banning coal-fired power plants. I am not sure that he meant that, because it is not practical. But he is right if he meant that we need to start reducing our dependency on coal-fired power plants as a percentage source of electricity output. With the recent Stimulus legislation and pending "clean energy" legislation, Congress is legislating to increase the share of renewable sources of electricity. But this will make only a dent. America needs to start increasing the share of that other source of "clean energy" — nuclear power, which represents only 20% of our current power sources for electricity. That's material for another blog.