My feelings are split over how I feel about the United States Congress delaying their phase out of incandescent light bulbs here in the good old U S of A. They will be effectively banned beginning in October of this year.
The scientist in me realizes that the incandescent light bulb is one of the least energy efficient products available today. A pathetic 5-8% of the energy it uses is given off as visible light. The rest, as you will realize if you’ve ever tried to unscrew a bulb that was recently on, is given off as heat. Lots of finger scorching swear inducing heat. Easy Bake ovens used to use a 100 watt bulb as their source of heat. I say ‘used to’ because I read that they have been re-designed due to the upcoming ban.
The rest of me really resents the government telling me what kinds of light bulbs I have to use. I know it seems like a small thing, but what will they go after next? Our toilets? Dammit, I’ve almost forgotten about the whole “low-flow” fiasco. I view both instances of governmental intervention as intrusions on my personal rights.
But that is not what I’m writing about today. Among the replacements for the venerable incandescent bulbs are halogen bulbs and compact fluorescents (CFLs). The latter are the ‘pigtail’ appearing light that you have undoubtedly seen at your hippy neighbor’s house, or maybe in a public building. Halogen lights boast the fact that they are about 30% more energy efficient than incandescents. So what? Thirty percent better than completely dismal is still pretty bad. Up to ninety percent of the energy that a halogen bulb utilizes is given off as heat. Temperatures can get up to the 700-1000 degree Fahrenheit range. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that could pose a risk of fire.
Judging from what I’ve written above, you might be surprised to hear that I actually like the CFL bulbs. They aren’t perfect, but what is? They use only a quarter of the energy of the old incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount of light and they give off far less heat. Supposedly, they last eight to ten times longer than their old-fashioned counterparts.
CFL bulbs do have their share of drawbacks: They can take a minute or so to achieve full brightness. This can be annoying in the early morning hours when you are trying to tell the difference between a pair of blue or black pants. They also do not perform well in the cold. During our frigid Pennsylvania winters, in my century-old farm-house, you’d often get more light from a candle. Failure rates are significantly higher than advertised. I’ve read numerous complaints about bulbs in hard to reach places burning out after only a few months of use.
Getting rid of CFL bulbs is a pain. You can’t just toss them into the trash like the good old days. They contain mercury. Items containing mercury must be brought to a special recycling facility. Mercury, if you are not up on your chemistry, is one of the most toxic poisons threatening humans today. If you happen to break one in your home, there are 19 steps to follow during the clean up procedure according to the EPA.
You might be thinking, “what about LED technology?” LEDs use even less energy than CFLs, they reach full brightness instantly and last over 25,000 hours. The downside at this time is the cost. An LED bulb with the equivalent brightness of a 100 watt incandescent bulb currently costs about $50 US.
How much of an energy savings exactly can we expect to see as a result of eliminating incandescent bulbs? A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council says changing bulbs will eliminate the need to build 30 electric power plants. That seems like a lot until you consider that there are currently 5,800 electric plants in the United States.
With the usage of these more efficient bulbs we may find ourselves running up against Jevon’s paradox. This is the idea that as the usage of a resource becomes more efficient, it effectively becomes cheaper, therefore stimulating greater use. One example of this is that gasoline usage actually went up after increased fuel efficiency standards were mandated by the US government back in the 1970′s. Will the same thing happen with the implementation of more efficient light bulbs? Only time will tell.
Phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, Wikipedia
Congress overturns incandescent light bulb ban, The Washington Times
Mercury, US EPA
Why are eco-facists trying to ban incandescent bulbs?, The Straight Dope
Jevon’s Paradox, Wikipedia