Intelligent Energy

Lights out for the old 100W bulb? Maybe not

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The incandescent light bulb wars fuel up in Congress. Will an attempt to repeal incoming lighting efficiency standards brighten or burn out?

The debate over light bulb efficiency standards continues to burn this week, bringing a common household fixture into the Congressional spotlight. Rallying behind cries of consumer choice infringement and keeping the government out of American homes, House Republicans are reportedly trying to repeal the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. Starting this January with the 100-watt bulb, the bill would require new incandescent bulbs to be about 25 percent more efficient than their predecessors.

Conventional incandescents are inefficient light sources because they convert more electricity to heat rather than light, emitting approximately 15 lumens for every watt. The new standards would initially bring bulbs up to 20 lumens per watt. Many halogen incandescents already make the cut and are on shelves, such as GE's A19 halogen. Curly-cue compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) get around 45 lumens per watt, but not everyone likes them or is comfy with the mercury they contain. Good thing there are non-CFL choices as well.

To illuminate the options, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the Energy Savers website on Friday. Chu says the newer class of bulbs, which last longer and incur lower electric bills, could save American households $6 billion annually. In a report released last week, the Natural Resource Defense Council pegs the savings higher at $12.5 billion, once the standards go into full swing in 2020. The environmental group, an outspoken supporter of the legislation, says the resulting decrease in electric demand could slash the need for more than 30 new power plants.

NRDC puts California and Texas, with $1 billion-plus annual savings each, as the biggest beneficiaries of the new lighting regime. Even so, some Texas policymakers are reluctant to unscrew the old standbys.

Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a law last month that would allow the state to produce and sell outmoded light bulbs. But whether these manufacturing dreams are realistic has come into question. The state is apparently low on resources for tungsten, a metal used for making filaments. The future for light-emitting diode tech in the state, however, might be more promising. The Governor's office announced in February a $3 million investment in FireFly LED, an Austin-based company working with the University of Texas to commercialize its bulbs. In a statement at the time, Gov. Perry spoke of fostering an "environment of innovation." Yet his latest move seems to follow a strategy of stagnancy.

The potential repeal this week would need Democratic support in the House and Senate to pass. Should it fail, the feds won't come knocking to look under your lampshades (at least not for light bulbs). The standards apply to manufacturers and wholesalers and wouldn't be the first such efficiency rules for household staples. New Jersey Representative Rush Holt writes:

Congress has required manufacturers to create new, more energy-efficient refrigerators. Yet we haven't heard any calls to revert to turn-of-the-century Model Ts or ice boxes -- technologies that are roughly as old as the conventional light bulb.

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Images: DOE

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure