Why Republicans are fighting to save the 30-cent light bulb

House Republicans are attempting to repeal energy-efficiency standards that would phase out the least efficient – and least expensive – incandescent light bulbs. They see the regulations as another example of government meddling.

Jae C. Hong / AP / File
In this Jan. 21 file photo, manager Nick Reynoza holds a 100-watt incandescent light bulb at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles. In an attempt to cut energy consumption, federal laws will soon prohibit the sale of inefficient incandescent bulbs. California began the process early, starting its phase-out last month. The rest of the country will begin next year.

Under a "Bring Back the Bulb" banner, Republicans in the House of Representatives will debate legislation on Monday to roll back energy-efficiency standards, thereby permitting Thomas Edison's original, highly inefficient incandescent light bulb to continue being sold next year.

But were the bulbs ever actually banned? The bipartisan legislation, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2007, sought to boost lighting efficiency and save on energy costs by requiring lightbulbs be more efficient, not by banning any particular style of bulb – part of a long-term government energy efficiency process that has enjoyed both parties' support for decades. Now, that support is dimming, as "nanny-government" critics complain Americans are so hen-pecked by bureaucrats that they can't even buy a simple old light bulb.

“This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom," Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, the new bill's sponsor, said in a statement earlier this year. "Voters sent us a message in November that it is time for politicians and activists in Washington to stop interfering in their lives and manipulating the free market. The light bulb ban is the perfect symbol of that frustration. People don’t want Congress dictating what light fixtures they can use.”

Incandescent bulbs are certainly popular, burning in most of the 3-4 billion screw-in sockets in US homes and businesses, the US Department of Energy reports. But are their days numbered?

"The incandescent light bulb is not being banned, contrary to common misconceptions," says Randall Moorehead, vice president of government affairs for Philips Electronics North America. "Americans are not being forced to buy compact florescent lights. The only thing people are going to notice about their incandescent light bulb is that their electricity bill is going to go down."

Don’t tell that to those who have picked up the light-bulb-ban banner.

“The American people have voiced overwhelming opposition to the light bulb ban, and the House of Representatives has started to listen,” said Myron Ebell, director of Freedom Action, a group sponsored by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a statement. “Freedom Action urges every House member to vote Yes on Rep. Joe Barton’s bill to overturn the ban enacted in 2007 on standard incandescent bulbs.”

Debate on the light-bulb bill is expected on the House floor Monday. Under a suspension of the rules, a floor vote is expected tomorrow that would require a two-thirds majority to succeed. Even if it does succeed, it would need to pass the Senate and be signed by the president – a very dubious prospect. It is possible, however, that the issue could reemerge as a rider to a budget bill or a bargaining chip in debt negotiations, analysts say.

"It's going to be a close vote in the House," says one lighting industry official who asked not to be named. "Even if this bill goes down, it could end up as a rider."

So were the bulbs banned or not?

Contrary to claims frequently made by conservative talk radio, bloggers, and some news media outlets, incandescent light bulbs are not actually being "banned." Incandescent bulbs with newer, more efficient technology will still be for sale, because the 2007 law does not single out any particular lighting technology. It only requires light bulbs to meet higher levels of efficiency if they are to be sold.

Under that law, general-purpose light bulbs must become about 30 percent more energy efficient. Different bulb classes face different deadlines, all between 2012 and 2014. The old Edison bulb gets killed on January 1, 2012. But more-efficient incandescent bulbs, which use only 72 watts to give the same output as an old 100-watt Edison bulb, will still be sold.

While Edison bulbs today are about 30-50 cents apiece, updated versions cost $1.50. But the latter pay for themselves in energy savings in about six months.

The old incandescent bulb is clearly an energy hog. Just 5 percent of the electricity it uses lights the bulb – the rest ends up as heat.

If all homes and businesses used bulbs 35 to 75 percent more efficient, they would collectively save almost $10 billion a year in energy costs. The switch would cut energy demand enough to eliminate the need to build dozens of coal-fired power plants, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

"Constituents in some districts are concerned because they are hearing that incandescent bulbs are being banned," says Jim Presswood, federal energy policy director for the NRDC. "It's not true. But a lot of activists on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative bloggers are finding it a great issue for them. There's a lot of interest among tea party conservatives and anti-government people driving it."

What about American jobs?

With news that the incandescent bulbs actually are not being banned beginning to be recognized on Capitol Hill, the legislative argument is shifting now more toward the jobs issue – with claims that the efficiency rules are sending jobs overseas. A large General Electric plant in Winchester, Va., that produced conventional bulbs closed last fall, putting 200 workers out of their jobs.

But that basic bulb business was already rapidly being phased out in the US, ceding to ever-lower-cost producers in China and elsewhere – even as domestic job growth has picked up strongly with new technology lighting, industry officials say.

"Phillips is actually adding jobs in the US, in the area of energy-efficicent lighting," Mr. Moorehead says. "The major component for our EcoVantage bulb is made in New York and light emitting diodes for our LED bulbs are made in California. There's a growing workforce in both of those areas."

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