If you don't like the facts, make up your own

That seems to be the principle that motivates Joseph Bottum’s article, “It’s green and blue, but not bright”, recently published in the Weekly Standard. Because from beginning to end, Mr. Bottum makes up religious narratives, historical narratives, legal analyses, and facts, out of whole cloth, and gets virtually all of them confused, or outright wrong, I’m compelled to post this response addressing the most radical claims and shed light on the facts about the new lighting standard and CFLs. I will deal with his article in more depth in another blog.

Let’s begin with the most important error: Mr. Bottum claims that the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, “outlaws the production of incandescent bulbs”. That’s absolutely incorrect. The law actually makes incandescent bulbs more energy efficient. The first phase of the energy efficiency standard for light bulbs takes effect January 1, 2012, and requires new bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy starting with the conventional 100-watt bulb. The second phase will go into effect in 2020 and requires new bulbs to be at least three times more efficient than today’s incandescent bulbs, which means they will save 65 percent energy.

This standard will lead the way to a new generation of energy-efficient light bulbs and save consumers more than $10 billion annually, avoid the need for 30 new power plants, and decrease CO2 emissions by 100 million tons per year. To put the national savings numbers in perspective, the standard will save each household about $200 every year in energy bills. And most importantly, the lighting standard does NOT require CFLs. I will discuss next why CFLs are a really good choice for most uses of light bulbs, but under the standards consumers have a wide array of energy saving lighting choices. More choices, in fact, than they had before the law was passed. Read my colleague Noah Horowitz’s blogs for more on this.

Mr. Bottum also asserts that “the science of the light-bulb ban is dubious”. This statement, which is not supported by any scientific reference, is simply wrong. The science of light bulb efficiency is unquestioned. Several studies, including the National Academy of Sciences’  “America’s Energy Future,” the American Physical Society report Think Efficiency,” and the McKinsey Corporation’s analysis of energy efficiency, in addition to comprehensive analyses by national laboratories, the US Department of Energy, and the California Energy Commission all conclude that beyond a doubt, more efficient light bulbs of several different varieties each are more economical and save substantial amounts of energy compared to the old-fashioned incandescents.

 Mr. Bottum continues in the article as if the standards require CFLs, and  goes on to claim that CFLs “produce constant ultraviolet and blue light, which can aggravate skin rashes . . . they’ve been known to catch fire when hung upside down in recessed lighting, they make the rest of your appliances stutter when they draw their first burst of power, and they automatically switch on anything that uses an infrared remote control or sensor.  Like your TV channel changer and your cell phone. Oh, they also make polarized window film shimmer with funny little rainbows till your eyes water, and they cause the dyes in expensive fabrics and paintings to decay . . .” and many other claims that lack substantiation. All of Bottum’s claims are either misleading or downright incorrect and below I address some of them where he spins the facts radically:

Turning CFLs off and on too often can cause electronic ballast to decay

Bottum asserts that “if you turn your CFLs off and on too often, you cause their electronic ballast to decay.” In fact, when CFLs are turned on and off frequently, they have a life that is shorter than their normal life Normal CFL life is already 6 to 12 times longer than that of an incandescent so a lamp that burns out at a fourth of its normal life still saves money for the consumer. But how many applications in a home or business require lights to be turned off very frequently? CFLs average lifetimes are based on a typical three hour period during which the lamps burn without being turned off and no evidence suggest that this is atypical. Obviously, if you have a lamp that is required to turn on and off every 20 seconds such as traffic signals or Christmas tree lights, CFLs aren’t the best choice. In that case LEDs are the best choice, and they save about 90 percent of energy use compared to incandescents.

Dimmers kill CFLs quickly

Some compact fluorescent lamps are dimmable, and it says so right on the label; however, most CFLs currently sold are not designed to work with dimmers at all, and say so on the package. Dimmable CFLs work decently well to very well, depending on which product you choose. It is possible to buy dimmable CFLs that last a very long time. I have one in my home that has been operating 3-4 hours per day for 12 years.

Outside temperature ranges makes CFLS burn out

CFLs are designed for normal room temperatures. Placing a CFL outside in your porch light in Minnesota with -30 degree weather is an inappropriate choice. The same goes for coupling CFLs with sensors and timers that cause them to turn off and on frequently. There is an array of energy saving light bulbs that consumers can chose from for various lighting applications. See our light bulb buying guide for more information about the many energy savings bulbs available in the market today.

The expense and energy required for disposal has been ignored

Bottum says that CFLs’ “potential savings don't include the expense and energy required for disposal”. This is simply false. Many retailers already provide recycling programs for their customers to bring used or broken bulbs in for free, safe disposal. In fact, The Home Depot, in 2008 launched a national in-store, consumer CFL recycling program at all 1,973 store locations.  Other retailers – large and small -- are also following on the footsteps of the Home Depot.

And what about the mercury if I break a CFL?

Before falling victim to fear-mongering, one should note that in order to operate, CFLs contain extremely low levels of mercury, typically 3 milligrams (mg) per bulb – an amount smaller than the size of the period at the end of this sentence.  The worst-case health risk from exposure to mercury from a broken CFL is about equivalent to eating a small bite of tuna fish once in your lifetime. This is not to say that you should be careless about CFL disposal. Mercury emissions to the air cause the most serious pollution concerns, and the biggest source of airborne mercury in the U.S. is coal-burning power plants. Modeling performed by NRDC shows that national mercury emissions caused by common household lighting will be reduced by 60% once the lighting standard is in full effect, with national mercury levels going down from 2.7 tons per year to 1.1 tons per year. See our mercury fact sheet for more on this.

CFLs produce constant ultraviolet and blue light, which can aggravate skin rashes

Compared to CFLs, incandescents produce the same or more ultraviolet light. Natural sunlight is 5 percent ultraviolet. Consulting the Illuminating Engineering Society’s “The Lighting Handbook”, there is no mention of any adverse effects from ultraviolet emissions from fluorescent lamps. In other words, the level of UV produced is too small to be even mentioned as a concern. While there are some oddball internet sites that complain about UV exposure from CFLs, the only authoritative reference, the FDA site, does not find any cause for concern. In particular, none of the authoritative references even suggest that CFLs might emit more UV than incandescents.

Also, I have never seen claims that CFLs aggravate skin rashes being substantiated; at any rate, since their light is largely indistinguishable from the light of linear fluorescent lamps to which billions of people have been exposed, typically for 8 hours a day in their work environments, and there are no reports of aggravation of skin rashes, this seems pretty doubtful.

Do they catch on fire?

I’ve never seen a claim for fire caused by a CFL hung upside down in recessed lighting, although if the CFL is not designed for high temperature use, it may simply burn out. What I have seen, however, are documented reports of incandescent torchiere lamps that have caused fires, many of them fatal. CFLs in the torchiere would have prevented such tragic outcomes.

Appliances that stutter because of CFLs, really?

Mr. Bottum’s claim that CFLs make the rest of your electrical appliances stutter when they draw their first burst of power could only be true if the “inrush current” of a CFL is large. But this claim is wrong:  if you replace an incandescent with a CFL, the latter’s inrush current is about the same of the continued current of the incandescent bulb it replaces. And incandescent lamps also have inrush currents that are higher than their continued current.  So not only could this problem not possibly occur, CFLs actually help reduce stuttering of other electricity uses.  And the assertion that CFLs automatically switch on by anything that uses remote control or sensors was only valid for a small subset of CFLs production that was sold more than 10 years ago. It is simply no longer a problem.

CFLs make polarized window film shimmer in funny little rainbows

Mr. Bottum is the first person I’ve ever heard assert that they make polarized window film shimmer in funny little rainbows. What is the evidence that this is real? What is the mechanism? Why has no one else reported this supposed effect?

There is similarly no support for the assertion that CFLs cause dyes in fabrics in paintings to decay compared to other light sources such as incandescents or daylight. Fabric degradation is a result of UV exposure, and CFLs emit the same or lower amounts of UV as the incandescents they replace.

People dislike CFLs and soft light makes us happier, really?

Assertions like “soft light makes us happier, and it makes us prettier,” is not an objective assertion, but a fairytale. How would you even imagine proving it, much less be convinced you already had done so?  Also saying that we expect lamps to become redder as they dim because the sun does so (actually, when the sun is dimmed by clouds, it does the reverse) is again, simply made up out of whole cloth.

In closing, the true facts

Critics falsely claim that the 2012 standards will ban the incandescent light bulb, but the facts show that consumers will have a wide range of bulbs to choose from—including new and improved incandescent bulbs—and save considerably on their energy bills each year. Consumers will also have the choice of buying CFLs and LEDs that are far more efficient than required by the 2012 standard.

Several manufacturers—GE, Philips Lighting, and Osram Sylvania—already sell new energy efficient incandescent bulbs that use advanced technology. These bulbs meet the 2012 standards and are already available for sale. They look and perform just like conventional incandescent bulbs, but don’t use the same old technology, which has changed very little over the past 75 years.

The entire lighting industry along with consumer advocates, environmental groups, utilities and industry trade associations support the standards. Even Thomas Edison’s great grandson supports the standards. Thwarting these standards would create uncertainty for many of these lighting manufacturers that have already shifted significant investments and resources—including retooling factories—to research, develop, and produce more efficient bulbs.

The light bulb efficiency standards will help bring light bulb technology from the days of the horse and buggy to the 21st Century, which will save consumers money, create jobs, and reduce pollution. What’s not to like?