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Unplugged: A Push to Waste Energy

On Monday, the House of Representatives will consider legislation authored by Rep. Joe Barton to repeal federal energy efficiency standards for light bulbs, set to take effect next year. The standards have the support of environmental groups, consumer advocates, and lighting manufacturers and will save energy, reduce household electric bills and spur investment in advanced lighting technologies. 

But facts are an outdated metric for assessing legislative policy choices. Instead, the push to repeal light bulb efficiency standards comes wrapped in beliefs and feelings. 

Eulogies for “Edison’s gift” have lamented the loss of inefficient bulbs, while ignoring that many incandescent light bulbs are not going away. Incandescent bulbs that use halogen gas (like automobile headlights have for decades) meet the new standards, and there are more than a dozen exceptions for incandescent bulbs designed for specialty applications, like three-way switches and shatter-proof bulbs.

While fears over mercury exposure from broken compact fluorescent lamps are more understandable, CFLs are just one of many choices people will have once the standards take effect. By reducing demand for electricity from coal-fired power plants CFLs avoid more mercury pollution than they create.

Opposition to the standards, as expressed by Rep. Barton, is based on the ideological proposition that “we don't think the federal government should tell people what kind of lighting to use in their homes.”

But casting the issue as an interior decorating choice ignores that light bulbs of any kind aren’t much use without electricity, and that electricity carries real consequences with each flick of the switch. Melting glaciers, deadly air pollution, and destruction of mountains for coal are problems for the whole nation. Getting rid of a product that wastes 90 percent of the energy it consumes, and wears out more quickly, seems like the least the federal government could do.