“Save the light bulb” seems an unlikely war cry, but the fate of the old-fashioned, incandescent light bulb has become an issue that Tea Partiers, conservatives and a host of other Americans are rallying around. However, Tuesday the House thwarted an initial attempt to move forward with Representative Joe Barton’s (R-TX) Better Use of Light Bulbs Act today, which would allow the free market to decide which light bulbs are best rather than the United States government.
The bill was largely a symbolic gesture, but an important one nonetheless, reflective of the continuing national distress over continued, excessive government intrusion in commerce. Old fashioned – or “classic” if you will – incandescent light bulbs will not be able to meet the energy efficiency standards that are scheduled to kick in starting in 2012. The bill requiring higher efficiency bulbs was passed by Congress in 2007 and then signed by then President Bush.
Although nothing in the 2007 law requires consumers to buy the curlicue fluorescent bulbs that many consumers despise, the fact of the matter is that the only bulbs on the market that can meet the new standards are halogen bulbs, which are more than double the price of the classic bulb, and fluorescents which are far more expensive than that.
It may be the new bulbs will save the average American household about $100 per year in electrical bills, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu has claimed. He chided Republicans for supposedly picking the pocket of the beleaguered consumers. “Right now many families around the country are struggling to pay their energy bills and leaders in the house want to roll back these standards that will save families money,” he said. “These standards are not taking choices away, its putting money back in the pockets of American families.”
Obviously, the new standards are taking choices away, no matter how much double-speak Chu employs to dance around the issue. In effect, the United States government is telling consumers that they have to make the investment in a new type of light bulb, whether or not they particularly like that light bulb, and they are justifying that mandate by assuring consumers that they will be pleased with their personal return on investment.
We see this logic employed in the name of “energy efficiency” all the time. A new water heater, we are assured, will pay for itself in energy saving in “x” number of years. Yet, somehow, people choose to run their old water heaters, and dishwashers, and refrigerators and everything else. Why? Because they’re exercising their right to choose where to spend their money.
No doubt Whirlpool and Sears and other appliance manufacturers would be thrilled if a law forced consumers to make investments in the latest and greatest appliances, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, the Whirlpools and Sears of the world have to make that case for themselves. We decide when the investment makes sense, according to our personal desires.
The only difference between the above scenario and the light bulb law are the sums of money involved. Randy Moorhead, Vice President of Government Affairs for Philips Electronics, has been tirelessly working the Hill, urging lawmakers to defeat Barton’s bill. Why would one expect any other behavior? Unless Barton is somehow successful, Phillips Electronics will have access to a huge new market, by Act of Congress. Every corporation should be so lucky.
With the bill stymied and the House, there is little chance of actually saving the classic light bulb. But even if Barton’s bill were to have passed the House, there’s no way it would have survived a Senate vote.
And this is an issue that most Americans feel strongly about. The fluorescent bulbs are widely perceived to be ugly, unreliable, and many people don’t like the quality of light that they provide. Halogens are still establishing their track record in the household market. Most people would choose to stay with what they have known, theoretically energy savings be damned.
Getting rid of classic bulbs won’t lessen our dependence on foreign oil, as some terribly confused mainstream media outlets have suggested, because we don’t burn oil to generate the electricity that powers light bulbs. Mostly we burn coal, of which we have an abundance, even though more and more of that abundance is being burned in China rather than fueling prosperity in our own nation. We also split a fair number of uranium atoms to generate a great deal of the balance and we don’t appear to be running out of that element either.
Even if we assume that new bulbs – annoying, expensive and potentially toxic though they may be – ultimately save consumers money, so what? It is not (or should not be) the business of government to force consumers to save money in a free market system. If the market demands – and there is little doubt that it does – unannoying, cheap, non-toxic light bulbs, even if they are more expensive to operate, then there is obviously a reason for it and government ought to stay out of the decision making process.
But, this is a symbolic issue to be sure. Americans will adapt to the new light bulbs, but it’s not just about the light bulbs. It’s about the free market and an administration that seems bent on ruining it.
Rich Trzupek is a chemist and veteran environmental consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in the field. He is the author of the Encounter Broadside How the EPA’s Green Tyranny is Stifling America and the upcoming book Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry (Encounter Books).
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