The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 — one of the most pork-filled bits of federal energy legislation ever passed by Congress — continues to haunt us.
That legislation, signed into law by George W. Bush, forced more ethanol into our motor-fuel supply. And come New Year’s Day, it will effectively eliminate a type of light bulb — the standard 40- and 60-watt incandescent — that consumers have been using since the days of Thomas Edison. (The January 1 ban on 40- and 60-watt bulbs follows the phase-out of the 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs that took effect at the beginning of this year.)
To be clear, this is not the end of the republic. But it is yet another maddening example of governmental intervention in the energy marketplace that simply isn’t needed.
The motivation behind the ban on standard incandescent bulbs is greater efficiency. The EPA claims that the light-bulb ban will cut consumers’ electricity bills by about $6 billion by 2015. It also claims that the move will reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants and cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
All that may be true. But $6 billion in savings is a vanishingly small sliver of the U.S. GDP of about $16 trillion. Furthermore, the United States already leads the world in cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions, thanks to the fact that natural gas is displacing significant amounts of coal in the electric-generation sector.
Back in 2007, one of the main backers of the push to ban incandescent bulbs, Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, who has since left Congress, offered a justification for the move. In an article in the Huffington Post, she claimed that banning the bulbs could “help transform America into an energy-efficient and energy-independent nation.” Over the past few years, I’ve heard plenty of cockamamie notions — from the corn-ethanol scam to cellulosic biofuel — about how to reach the mythical Valhalla of energy independence. By adding light bulbs to the list, Harman proved she isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
Consumers don’t always do what is most efficient. I don’t have the most efficient number of shoes in my closet or the optimum number of lettuce plants in my garden. If consumers prized efficiency over everything else, they would buy only small cars. That’s not happening. The latest sales data show that Ford, Chevy, and Dodge together sell nearly seven times as many pickups as Toyota sells Priuses. (Through November 2013, YTD sales of Ford, Chevy, and Dodge pickups totaled 1.447 million; Prius sales were about 218,000.)
People buy what works best for them. That applies to light bulbs. Yes, it’s true that the incandescent design, which Edison perfected in about 1882, converts only about 10 percent of the energy it consumes into useful light. The rest is lost as heat. But those same bulbs emit a pleasing, warm light. LED and compact-fluorescent bulbs are getting better, but they don’t produce the same warm glow as incandescents. (This is clear when you look at Christmas lights: The color of the light emitted by the LED-strands is unappealingly cold.)
The incandescent light bulb changed the world. As author David E. Nye has explained, “For all of human experience light and fire had been synonymous.” With his incandescent bulbs, Edison was able to provide light that was “at once mild and intense, smokeless, fireless, steady, seemingly inexhaustible. . . . The enclosed light bulb seemed an impossible paradox. Fire and light would never again be identical.”
I can’t think of another invention that has been as influential as the incandescent bulb or that has done as much to improve the human condition, that has also been effectively banned.
Of course, advocates of efficiency argue that the operating costs for the newer bulbs are far lower than those for incandescent varieties. Again, this is true. But more-efficient bulbs also tend to be more expensive. A single 60-watt LED bulb on homedepot.com costs $12.97. On that same website, one of the “trending” items is a 24-pack box of standard 60-watt incandescent bulbs costing $37.96. Put another way, if you act quickly, you can buy some of the old bulbs for about $1.58 each. If you don’t, you may have to resort to the newer LED bulbs costing eight times as much.
The bottom line is obvious: If consumers want to buy more-efficient light bulbs, then let them do so. Let the market work. We don’t need government to restrict our lighting choices.
I don’t know what other people are doing. But I have stockpiled several dozen 60-watt incandescents in my garage. I may even buy more over the next few days. And I have a message for federal legislators: Don’t tread on my light bulbs.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, will be published May 13.