June 2, 2011
by Diana Furchtgott-Roth
America doesn't usually have shortages. Consumers as a rule can find what they want to buy at stores or online. But in 212 days, on January 1, 2012, Americans won't be able to buy 100-watt incandescent light bulbs, the kind Thomas Edison invented and the only kind many of us know-and prefer.
That's because incandescent light bulbs are being phased out by wattage over a two-year period, starting January 2012. The 100-watt bulb will be the first to be outlawed, by act of Congress, followed by 75-watt bulbs in January 2013, and 60- and 40-watt bulbs in January 2014.
So consumers who want to stock up have seven months to buy 100-watt bulbs, 19 months to buy 75-watt bulbs, and 31 months to buy 60- and 40-watt bulbs.
The legislation outlawing the 130-year old light bulb was introduced in 2007 by then-Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who resigned in February, and Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican. The bill was rolled into the Energy Independence and Security Act, signed by President George W. Bush in December 2007.
The reason for ending the use of incandescent bulbs is to save energy. They burn more electricity than do several newer types of bulbs.
Mr. Upton is now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While lobbying among Republicans for the position, he promised to try to repeal the section of the 2007 energy bill that prohibits incandescent bulbs.
"We have heard the grass roots loud and clear, and will have a hearing early next Congress," he said last December. "The last thing we wanted to do was infringe upon personal liberties - and this has been a good lesson that Congress does not always know best."
But Mr. Upton's committee has yet to hold the promised hearing, even though Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, proposed the Better Use of Light Bulb Act (BULB) on January 5.
Charlotte Baker, Chairman Upton's press secretary, told me in an email that "the committee plans to hold a hearing on lighting efficiency standards later this month," but she would not tell me whether the BULB Act would be included.
The bill, which has 62 cosponsors, 61 Republicans and one Democrat, would repeal the phaseout of incandescent light bulbs. A companion bill in the Senate is sponsored by Wyoming Republican Michael Enzi, and has 28 cosponsors.
The House Republican leadership has evinced no interest in bringing the Barton bill to the floor.
In the meantime, it is perfectly lawful for consumers who prefer incandescent bulbs to stock up. Congress does not prohibit their use at home.
Without traditional light bulbs, Americans will be left to choose between three different types of new bulbs: compact fluorescent bulbs, known as CFLs, halogens, and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
All three cost more, but are said to last longer than incandescent bulbs. As with hybrid cars, they carry a higher purchase cost but supposedly lower operating costs over time.
But compact fluorescents, LEDs, and halogen bulbs all have disadvantages.
The new bulbs are expensive. Today a conventional 100-watt bulb costs 58 cents on Amazon.com, compared with $2 for a CFL and $8.50 for a halogen. The LED is not yet available in a 100-watt size. The energy-efficient versions are supposed to last longer, but many people prefer not to pay the greater up-front cost. Or, if they have rooms they use infrequently, they don't see the point of putting in long-life bulbs.
Plus, many people do not like the light cast by fluorescents, even though these bulbs are the least expensive of the alternative energy set. Some say the light casts a yellow or blue tint, that it flickers, that the bulbs hum, that the light gives headaches.
And there is a back-end problem: compact fluorescents present disposal problems because they contain mercury. The Energy Department lists complex rules on its Web site here for disposing of the new bulbs.
If a CFL breaks, EPA instructions include leaving a room for 15 minutes and turning off forced air heating and cooling. Then, bulb remnants should not be swept up with a broom or vacuum cleaner, but carefully scooped up using stiff paper and placed in a canning jar or sealed plastic bag. Afterwards, sticky tape or wet wipes should be used to collect the last fragments.
This is not something most people want to do when they drop a light bulb. They just want to sweep it up, throw it in the trash, and get on with their day.
Even when a compact fluorescent light bulb reaches the end of its natural lfe, it cannot be placed in the garbage, according to EPA. It must be turned in at special recycling centers. EPA has links to recycling centers on its Web site. Consumers are instructed to keep purchase receipts, because if the bulb fails before two years, the customer can ask the manufacturer to replace it without charge.
Whereas incandescent bulbs are made in America, in plants such as Osram Sylvania's Kentucky facility, the vast majority of the new fluorescent bulbs are made in China, because twisting the glass into a CFL's spiral shape is labor-intensive. One American plant, Neptun, opened in Lake Bluff, Illinois , with funding from the stimulus program, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
It's unlikely that more CFL plants will open in America because of the high labor costs. It's not that CFL plants have moved offshore, CFLs were never made in America due to high labor costs. The main producers of CFLs, Philips, Sylvania, and GE, make their bulbs in China, with some Philips bulbs made in Poland.
Calls to repeal the incandescent light bulb ban are coming from consumers, who prefer incandescent lamps. According to the National Association of Electrical Manufacturers, approximately 25 percent of bulbs sold in 2010 were CFLs, and the rest were incandescents.
Businesses are opposed to changing the law. Light bulb producers have invested in new technology and want the eventual payoffs. They want an industry standard, and they don't mind if it's more expensive for the consumer.
Consumers should be free, in my opinion, to choose the light bulbs they prefer. If Congress believes that consumers should conserve energy, it can impose a tax on the model bulbs whose use it would discourage, or on electricity in general.
The argument that consumers are irrational, that they don't want to pay more upfront for a better, longer-lasting, product, doesn't square with reality. Consumers buy plenty of expensive goods, ranging from luxury cars to the latest smart phone. When consumers want something, they buy it. And they don't seem to want fluorescent bulbs.
Chairman Upton, Americans will start to lose their incandescent light bulbs in 212 days. How about voting Mr. Barton's bill out of committee and sending it to the House floor?
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute from 2005 to 2011.
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