Light Bulb Moment

[ Posted Tuesday, July 12th, 2011 – 17:28 UTC ]

A "light bulb moment" is, of course, when a new idea strikes. The name comes from the cartoon image of a person (often blurting out "Aha!" or even "Eureka!") at the very moment the idea strikes -- pictured with a glowing light bulb over their head. However, while this serves as a clever headline for today's column, this is not your typical light bulb moment, for a number of reasons. The most ironic of which is that the light bulb, in today's debate, is now the old idea that is under attack. Or, perhaps, "was" under attack, as now the Republicans have turned the tables and are defending the traditional light bulb and attacking the new idea. If this sounds confusing, I promise we'll get to the politics in a moment. First, a short synopsis of where we stand today.

I should begin by saying that if you have no idea what I'm talking about at all, you are in good company. Most Americans don't even know there's a light bulb debate happening right now in Congress. If you live in California, however, you likely have already realized what is going on: standard light bulbs are being effectively banned.

You heard that right -- most of the friendly incandescent light bulbs we've all known and loved our entire lives are going to be legislated out of existence in the next few years. The reason is that, when it comes to energy efficiency, that incandescent light bulb isn't actually all that friendly. Something like ninety percent of the energy it consumes is wasted as heat, rather than producing light. So, back in 2007, Congress acted to fix the situation for us all.

Now, environmentalists may howl that light bulbs aren't being "banned" at all. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, they insist, banned nothing. What it did, though, is introduce efficiency standards for light bulbs. By a certain date, all bulbs had to be at least 30 percent more efficient than the current bulbs. But this is a de facto ban on incandescent bulbs, because they cannot meet such a standard (at least in their current design). The law is going to be phased in over time. First on the chopping block are 100 watt bulbs, which will disappear from store shelves on the first of January next year. Next to go will be 75 watt bulbs, and eventually every standard bulb 40 watts and above will disappear.

I am more aware of this than most because I live in California, which passed its own ban, one year earlier than the national ban. If I want to buy a 100 watt incandescent light bulb, I currently have to travel to Nevada.

The federal law was introduced by Democrats, right after they took over Congress in the 2006 election. It is a sweeping law which covers all sorts of energy-related things (such as improving the C.A.F.E. fuel-economy standards for automakers, for instance). But you simply can't lay all the blame at the feet of the Democratic Party, since the final bill passed the House of Representatives by a 314-100 vote, and the Senate by a vote of 86-8 -- after which it was signed by Republican President George W. Bush. Not exactly a secret Democratic plot, by any standards.

The intent of the bill's light bulb provisions are noble, I must scrupulously point out. America wastes a lot of energy powering these inefficient bulbs. The basic light bulb design hasn't changed much in the past century or so, meaning there is lots and lots of room for improvement. Estimates vary, but America could likely eventually save over ten billion dollars a year in energy costs by scrapping the incandescent bulb. Not only would this be good for consumers who saved all of that money, it would be good for our national energy policy since we'd have to build fewer new power plants due to the lessened overall load on our electrical grid. That's the theory, in a nutshell.

The problem, as with many grand theories, is in the implementation.

Incandescent light bulbs are cheap. They also have a standardized shape (not counting fancy non-standard bulbs, which are mostly exempt from the ban anyway). People know what they look like, in terms of the colors they shed (no bulb is truly "white" light, as most incandescents have yellow or orange qualities to them). People know about how long they'll last, and how to easily dispose of them when burnt out. Incandescent bulbs work with dimmer switches, and light up immediately when you throw the switch. These are the basic characteristics of light bulbs that have caused all the problems.

New designs for light bulbs, so far, cannot match all of these characteristics adequately for most consumers. The leading contender as of now is the compact fluorescent bulb, which fail on almost every single characteristic, to some degree or another. Compact fluorescent bulbs, when introduced, were bizarre shapes which didn't fit into many fixtures. They were also very expensive -- in some cases ten or twenty times the price (or even more) of incandescent bulbs. A lot of folks don't like the light they shed for one reason or another. While manufacturers (and proponents) of compact fluorescents make wild claims about how long they'll last, these claims don't always hold up (to put it mildly). Most compact fluorescents take a while to fully brighten, and don't work with dimmer switches. To make matters worse, they contain toxic mercury gas and are supposed to be disposed of the way you would any other toxic material, and not thrown in the garbage.

So consumers are faced with the choice of a bulb which costs maybe fifty cents and does all the things they expect it to, and a bulb which can cost five to ten dollars, which fails to meet the basic consumer criteria for the product.

Now, compact fluorescents are getting marginally better, I will admit (and they have indeed gotten cheaper than when they were first introduced). The manufacturers have finally realized that there are uncountable millions of lampshades that are built to pop onto a standard-sized bulb, and as a result they've squashed the loops of glass necessary into the standard bulb size and shape. They've attempted to convince consumers that paying more for one bulb (they're still more expensive than incandescents, even if the price is coming down) is actually cheaper than the fifty-cent type, when you take into account both the electricity used and the lifespan of the bulb. But the other shortcomings of the compact fluorescent will be much harder (if not impossible) to solve.

Light bulb manufacturers are already exploring new technologies, perhaps knowing that compact fluorescents have not warmed the hearts of their consumers as of yet. Halogen bulbs are now on the market, which are dimmable and not as toxic as the fluorescents.

But the real answer is likely going to be light-emitting diode (LED) "bulbs" (they can't even truly be called light bulbs, since no glass is even necessary). After many decades of searching for the "Holy Grail" in LED technology, a few years back someone finally figured out how to make an LED which emitted white light. LEDs, of course, are so small that they are grouped together in their bulb shape, and seem to solve almost all of the consumer complaints over compact fluorescents. The bulb shape is no problem. They work with dimmer switches, and they brighten immediately when the switch is flipped. You can throw them in the garbage. The light strikes some as harsh and "too white," but this can be solved by "tuning" the frequency by adding different colors to the matrix of LEDs, or by putting a colored glass or plastic "bulb" over the LED array. And they actually live up to the claims of long life, unlike many compact fluorescents. LED bulbs have a lifespan you can measure in years of use, not just months or hours. And they use a tiny, tiny fraction of the energy that even a compact fluorescent uses (to say nothing of an incandescent bulb).

There's really only one thing LED bulbs fail on: price. They can cost from twenty to forty dollars a bulb. "Forty bucks for a light bulb?!?" you can almost hear the American consumer scream. But this problem will solve itself over time. These bulbs cost so much mainly because they are the newest light bulb to hit the market. New technology always costs more when it is introduced. But, at least in the world of electronics, the price soon gets radically cheaper. This happens because factories which used to make the old style bulbs will change over to cranking out LED bulbs, and as more are produced, they'll get cheaper per unit to make (it's called "economy of scale").

To cite an example of this (which those of a certain age will remember), consider the LED-based digital watch. First introduced in a big way to consumers in the 1970s, this new and whizzy technology was initially only available in the realm of those who could afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a watch. It was a status symbol for a period of time, much like the handheld calculators of the same era. But within the space of about a decade, LED watches were being churned out so cheaply they were being given away as prizes in cereal boxes. If you spent more than ten bucks on one, you were paying too much.

The same thing will likely happen with LED light bulbs. Within a decade (give or take), the bulbs will likely be extremely cheap -- perhaps even rivaling the fifty cents an incandescent bulb now costs. Currently, you can buy long strings of LED Christmas lights for a song. As the Chinese factories get revved up to churn out billions of bulbs, the price will plummet. After all, LEDs themselves aren't that expensive to make. Compact fluorescents will also fade out of existence, because of their many shortcomings when compared to LED bulbs. And even the beloved incandescents will also all but disappear, since the LED bulbs will last years longer than the bulbs we've all come to know and love. They'll truly be a lot cheaper for consumers, in other words.

The problem with this rosy scenario is that Congress has already mandated change -- and the change it mandated is going to happen sooner than the LED bulb market will likely achieve the necessary economy of scale to make the bulbs the best choice for even limited-math-skills consumers.

Which brings us to the politics of the situation. Today, House Republicans are pushing for a vote to repeal the "light bulb ban" passed back in 2007. Democrats are resisting this effort. But you know what? Republicans are going to win the argument with the public, just as soon as the public realizes that the ban exists (say, towards the end of this year). Politically, the Republicans are positioning themselves on the better side of this issue.

Their rhetoric is entirely predictable. They talk of "freedom" and "getting gummint off our backs" and all the rest of it. They decry the "nanny" nature of the law, where the government tells consumers what they can and cannot buy. After all, even raising fuel standards didn't "ban" gigantic SUVs (which, despite the hue and cry at the time, are still available on every dealer's lot). And everybody buys light bulbs. It's a very tangible example of what Republicans like to call "governmental overreach" or perhaps "regulators gone crazy."

Democrats are left in what could be called the "Tsk, tsk!" position. Or, to quote the president, as the "eat your peas" party. They are left explaining why this is really a good thing to the public. This is a common failing of many Liberals -- the bedrock belief that if you just explain things well enough to people, that the public will become enlightened as to the rightness of your cause and support it wholeheartedly because you are making so much sense. Needless to say, in politics, things don't always work out according to this plan.

As I said, the idea itself is a noble one. It is an idea whose time has come. But maybe, just maybe, it's going to take a little longer to get there than initially planned. If Democrats were smart, instead of joining up with Republicans who are trying to overturn the law, they would offer their own reform of the initial law by stretching it out a few more years.

LED bulbs are going to become the way we all light our homes in the very near future. But we're simply not there yet. Even China takes a while to ramp up production of a new technology to the point where the cost to the consumer plummets. Rather than forcing all American consumers to live through an interim period where compact fluorescents -- with all their flaws -- are the only possible solution, Democrats should rewrite the law to give the LED bulb manufacturers a few more years to prove their product in the marketplace. By doing so, America would indeed get to the same point -- where we're all saving money on our electric bills and conserving energy so much that we won't need as many new power plants -- at roughly the same time. But doing so would avoid that interim period of being forced to buy inferior products without the choice of walking out of the hardware store with a four-pack of 100 watt bulbs for two or three bucks. Republicans have already latched onto the issue, because they know that the American consumer is not going to be happy next year when the choices on the store shelves start disappearing. Democrats should counter this with their own reform of the light bulb law which takes into account a technology which simply had not come of age when the law was written. If incandescent bulbs were phased out on a slower schedule than that contained in the current law (where all standard incandescents 40 watts and above will be gone within a few years), and incentives were introduced to spur production of LED bulbs, then Democrats could recapture the legislative initiative from the Republicans.

But, as it stands right now, the choice is between the Republican plan to scrap the law, and the law itself. When consumers outside of California start to realize what this is going to mean next year, they are much more likely to back the Republican position on the issue. Democrats should realize this before it is too late. While I was writing this article, the vote to change the law failed in the House, but interestingly enough it was brought up under rules which necessitated a two-thirds majority -- almost as if the Republicans wanted this effort to fail, to keep the issue alive all during next year's campaign. Which is certainly food for thought, or should be.

What the Democrats need, obviously, is an old-fashioned light bulb moment (to be clear: not an old-fashioned light bulb, but an old-fashioned "Eureka!" moment). Fix the law, don't kill it. Otherwise, expect it to be an issue on the campaign trail from now on.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Light Bulb Moment”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    The name comes from the cartoon image of a person (often blurting out "Aha!" or even "Eureka!") at the very moment the idea strikes

    Most of this verbiage is unnecessary: there's a word for the "aha" moment.

    3. a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience

    eventually every standard bulb 40 watts and above will disappear

    Key word: "standard". The law has exceptions for practically every version of incandescent except the most basic plain-vanilla bulbs.

    The bizarre thing is that the low-wattage bulbs are going to be kept longest, indefinitely for 40-watt bulbs. The lumens per watt are best (or not quite as abysmal, anyway) on the highest-wattage incandescents, so if you're going to use incandescent you're better off with just one hundred-watt bulb than the four 40-watt bulbs it would take to provide as much light. Actually it's about three and a half, but you can't have half a bulb. You can put the light on a dimmer switch, but that makes the bulb run cooler, further decreasing the efficiency.

    A lot of folks don't like the light they shed for one reason or another.

    Just one reason: people are used to the dull yellow of incandescent bulbs. It doesn't actually look like sunlight, but we're used to it.

  2. [2] 
    akadjian wrote:

    ... interestingly enough it was brought up under rules which necessitated a two-thirds majority -- almost as if the Republicans wanted this effort to fail, to keep the issue alive all during next year's campaign.

    I saw this in the fine print in a newspaper article. Seems like there could be a couple reasons for this:

    1) As you mentioned, they want it to fail so they can keep the issue alive and blame it on Democrats

    2) They actually want it to pass but don't want any responsibility for it passing and don't want to take the heat from the fringeys and, from the light-bulb industry lobbyists

    Remember who's going to benefit from this bill at the end of the day: 1) the public from lower energy consumption, but 2) the light bulb industry (because they're able to sell higher margin product)

    As you most excellently said ... food for thought


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    This was very interesting and your advice to the Democrats really does, if I may say, make so much sense. Not surprisingly.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Liz -


    Where's Michale? I thought he'd love this article...



  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Good point on "epiphany." I'd further add that "Eureka" is self-defined as well, being Greek for "I have found (it)!"

    California has several towns named "Eureka" (various spellings)...


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Fun fact for all:

    A light bulb that has been burning in a Livermore, CA fire station for over 100 years. When this bulb was made, the Wright Brothers had yet to make their flight. And it's still burning...


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    But how many lumens per watt does it get?

    I don't think there's anything all that extraordinary about the very long-burning bulbs. You can make a bulb last indefinitely, just by making it very inefficient (even for an incandescent), with a filament too thick for its wattage.

  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    They only run, like, four watts through the thing now, but hey, it's still pretty cool! The bulb was apparently not a carbon-based filament but something else (tungsten?) which was a LOT more hefty, but probably cost a bit more. But still, a century-old bulb still giving off light is pretty impressive!



  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    C'mon, you're disappointing me. Here I write an article agreeing with the GOP point of view, and slamming Democrats... and... nothing from you? Tsk tsk.



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