Blue Light Special

Psst... Wanna Buy A Light Bulb?


Last month, my cheapskate landlord showed up at my door to install new, environmentally friendly (read: cheaper) light fixtures in my kitchen. Earlier that week, my building's "green living team" hosted a bulb swap in the apartment lobby, offering newer, more efficient bulbs in exchange for the current contents of my light sockets. Both were boldly following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

Cuba began pushing out incandescent bulbs two years ago, sending youth brigades around the island to swap out bulbs with the goal of relieving some of the stress on the nation's decaying, overtaxed power grid. My landlord sent contractors instead of a youth brigade. But the contractors were young and Hispanic, so close enough. The difference between my landlord and Castro, of course, is that my landlord can't fine me or throw me in jail if I prefer to stick with old-fashioned light bulbs. But all that may be about to change, with light bulb ban legislation pending in California, Connecticut, Illinois, and the U.S Congress.

The old incandescent bulbs most people still use are essentially unchanged from the date of their invention by Thomas Edison at the end of the 19th century. They emit about 15 lumens (a measure of brightness) per watt. A newer, currently available 20-watt compact fluorescent bulb produces about the same amount of light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb. A manifest improvement for those, like Castro, trying to save on electricity bills and relieve stress on an overtaxed power grid. But when someone decided that potential energy savings from lighting would be an important step in saving the planet from global warming, the trouble really started.

The U.S. is just starting to hop on Castro's well-lit bandwagon, but Hugo Chavez has us beat. In Venezuela, the light spilling out of the slums in Caracas has taken on the bluish tint typical of florescent lighting, as Chavez's strange environmental crusade marches on. In imitation of Castro-and in spite of his country's total dependence on oil exports for fiscal survival-Chavez has given away more than 45 million bulbs domestically, saying they this is part of his plan to save the planet from America's "greed for oil." Prensa Latina put a positive spin on the new, unfamiliar light, praising the "white light thrifty bulbs that besides saving energy gives a fresher lighting."

Of course, American users of soon-to-be black market bulbs aren't really facing jail time. But merchants selling incandescent bulbs could be subject to hefty fines if pending legislation passes. And it isn't just aesthetes who have complaints about the compact florescent bulbs. The new bulbs aren't perfect yet. They contain mercury, which means they have to be disposed of carefully. Sure to follow hard on the heels of requirements to use the new bulbs will be regulations about how new bulbs are to be discarded, including fines for people who try to smuggle bulbs out in the garbage with the wine bottles. Though there is no evidence that the bulbs themselves pose any risk, hypercautious modern parents may prefer to keep mercury out of their homes entirely-an option they won't have under the proposed legislation.

By forcing alternatives out of the market, the new legislation will reduce incentives for lighting companies to keep innovating in an effort to push down prices. If they don't have to compete with incandescents, which cost about a quarter each, the R&D shops at companies manufacturing compact fluorescents can feel a little more comfortable when they take a long lunch on a workday.

Massive giveaways by environmental groups and Latin American dictators notwithstanding, once the bulbs become legally required in the U.S., some of us will have to buy them. The difference between a bulb that costs a quarter and one that costs three dollars may seem minor to most people, but the average American house has 50 light sockets, so the small price increase can add up. Even with Wal-Mart pushing hard on buyers and suppliers, the prices have stayed relatively high so far. The most commonly quoted figures say that they bulbs pay for themselves in savings on the electricity bill after about 500 hours of use, but renters or people who move frequently may not be around long enough to recoup costs.

The bulb ban has already been screwed into place in Australia, which recently announced a plan to gradually ban old-fashioned bulbs. The EU began its phase out of old-style bulbs just weeks ago as part of a plan to reduce overall power consumption.

California, always on the vanguard of legislation to control the little things in daily life, has managed to have a sense of humor about the ridiculous spectacle of legislators decided what kind of light bulbs we should have in our homes. California legislator Lloyd Levine is calling his bill the How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb Act.

Many of the versions of legislation at the state level show the classic hallmarks of big business-big government collusion: In North Carolina, House Bill 838, introduced by Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison, bans the sale of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs by 2016. Coincidentally, this is the same year the leading manufacturer of the new, energy efficient bulbs plans to stop manufacturing incandescents altogether.

Now the U.S. House of Representatives has its own legislation to force out incandescent bulbs: "The last thing we want to do is force legislation down people's throats," Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) said at a press conference. But the goal of reducing energy use requires legislation as a "focal point that you look at to try to move the country forward."

"It takes a combination of courage and leadership from the state and federal government to make things happen," said Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers.

But she's wrong. My cheap landlord, Wal-Mart, virtually every environmental group, and the companies that manufacture the new bulbs are all already showing the courage and leadership to "make things happen" with advertising, giveaways, and free installation. Legislators who command us to adopt energy efficient light bulbs are foolishly redundant at best, like the general who gives orders to pillage after his troops are already rampaging through the city. At worst, they're freezing technological development, colluding with big business, and forcing more expensive products on the households that can least afford them.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of Reason.