Bright Idea

Lobbyists win light ban


The incandescent light bulb died on December 19. Its funeral was attended by House and Senate leaders, President George W. Bush, and several commemorative signing pens. When the president signed the 2007 energy bill (passed by a veto-proof majority), he approved a mandate that all light bulbs consume 25 percent less energy by the year 2012. That effectively bans the traditional, cheap incandescent bulb, allowing the expensive but longer-lasting and more efficient compact fluorescent bulb to take over the market.

One reason such a major change moved so smoothly through Congress was that industry lobbyists wanted it. More than 20 years ago Philips Electronics invented the compact fluorescent bulb, a corkscrew of tubes that generates light from electricity, gas, and mercury. (The concept originally came out of General Electric during the 1973 energy crisis, but the company considered the product too expensive to produce.) In 2005 Philips started an aggressive campaign to market the bulbs as "green," just in time for the Democratic congressional takeover. The company spent more than $270,000 lobbying for the energy bill, retaining three firms to convince individual congressmen. The legislation is expected to help Philips, which sold just 65 million compact bulbs in 2001, sell 325 million of them by the end of this year.

Throughout 2007, when it came to light bulbs, environmental activists found helpful allies in Philips and other companies. Australia's parliament passed the first ban on the old bulbs in February, and the European Union approved a two-year phase-out in March. The American energy bill includes not just the light bulb mandate but a long list of provisions that pleased both green groups and manufacturers. Subsidies for biofuels and ethanol were pumped up, for example, to help the ethanol industry sell 36 billion gallons a year by 2020.