Colbert Report Covers Lightbulb Wars


Step aside healthcare and financial reform.  There’s a new political lightning rod in the halls of Congress these days.  It’s called the lightbulb.  That’s right, in the midst of everything from government shutdown fears to unrest in the Middle East, the Tea Party has found a new threat to our freedom - lighting improvements.

The story begins back in 2007, when the government passed a new lighting standard requiring bulbs to be 25% more efficient.  This standard was met with bipartisan support and President Bush’s signature.  The reasoning for it was simple:  our lightbulbs waste 90% of their energy as heat and after 125 years on the market, it’s time for a re-tooling.  Following in the footsteps of other efficiency standards that have made our refrigerators 90% more efficient and required our cars to get more miles per gallon, this lighting standard will put better bulbs on the shelves and cut our nation’s electric bill by $10 BILLION a year.  It’ll also zero out the pollution from 30 coal-fired power plants.

Despite the fact that President Reagan was the first to herald in federal efficiency standards 30 years ago, Republicans members of Congress including Representatives Joe Barton, Mike Enzi and Michele Bachmann have decided this lighting upgrade is an assault on our freedom and have introduced legislation to reverse the standards.  Bachmann, in fact, named her bill the “Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act.”

They claim the standard is an example of government overreach that will limit consumer choice, destroy jobs, threaten our health and even ruin childhood memories.  They make references about light bulb police coming into your homes to take away your beloved incandescent bulbs.  Talk about overreach. 

To better explain their complaints, I turn to one of America’s most trusted voices, Stephen Colbert –

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Light Bulb Ban
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The irony, of course, is that Barton and Bachman’s efforts would reduce choice, not increase it.   Not to mention that reversing this standard would also derail plans for new job-creating lighting factories and take as much as $200 per year out of the checkbooks of every U.S. household.

Luckily, Stephen gave me a chance to rebut the claims.

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See – these standards are all about choice.  The new standards don’t force any type of bulb on consumers, and they don’t ban any type of bulb either.

Want to stick with incandescents? You still can – it’s just that new and improved incandescent bulbs will put out the same sort of light using 28 percent less energy than old-school bulbs. Here are the before and after shots – can you tell the difference? 

Photo Credit: Anthony Clark/NRDC

And as for the mercury concerns – yes, CFLs contain two to four milligrams of mercury. For comparison sake, the thermometers many of us grew up with in our mouths contained about 500 milligrams of mercury – the equivalent of about 125 CFLs. 

In contrast, U.S. power plants pumped nearly 90,000 pounds of mercury in to the air in 2008, much of it in order to generate power for outdated light bulbs. That’s 90,000 pounds of mercury floating into the air we breathe and the fish we eat.  As I told Stephen – that’s the mercury we need to be worried about.  But hey – the beauty of this standard is that you don’t have to buy CFLs.  That image above shows a mercury-free advanced incandescent.  They’ll be on the same store shelf as the CFLs.  And they’ll offer you the same great shape and light you’re used to – just with fewer watts. 

It should also be said that, despite claims to the contrary, the lighting standards are driving R&D investments in the United States and creating new jobs. Sylvania recently retooled its St. Mary’s, Penn. incandescent bulb plant to make new incandescents that meet the new standards. Philips Lumiled in California, Cree Inc. in North Carolina and Lighting Science Group in Florida are creating thousands of new jobs at factories that make new LED bulbs.  And bulb maker TCP Inc., which previously manufactured all its bulbs in China, announced plans in 2009 for its first U.S. plant, in Ohio, to help meet the growing demand for CFLs because of the new standards. When’s the last time you heard of a company moving its manufacturing from China to the United States? 

And Hasbro, the maker of the Easy-Bake oven, has also revamped their design, building the new Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven which features a heating element that does not use a light bulb but instead offers an extensive assortment of mixes reflective of the hottest baking trends for today (My colleague, Kit Kennedy, wrote extensively about these issues in her February 2011 blog "Toy Story").

Wow – look what happens when you ask industry to innovate – they do.

Luckily, consumers already are adapting to better bulbs - and they like them. A February poll by USA Today found that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans have recently purchased new, more efficient light bulbs and 84 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with them.  Hopefully our leaders will take the hint and find something more productive to do with their time.  (To help them get the message – go here).