The lights have been permanently shut off at the last major U.S. incandescent light bulb plant, General Electric’s Winchester, Va., facility. But don’t worry. GE’s Chinese plants will replace them with a different kind that is supposed to be better.
Anyway, we really won’t have any choice. Thanks to pressure from environmental activist groups, a 2007 law passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress and signed by Republican President George W. Bush will make the sale of standard incandescent 100-watt bulbs illegal effective January 1, 2012, 75-watt bulbs on Jan. 1, 2013, and 60- and 40-watt bulbs as of Jan. 1, 2014. This was because they can’t meet new government-imposed “efficiency standards.” Chief sponsors were Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and Fred Upton (R-MI). Rep. Upton, now Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has since offered to hold a new hearing to consider removing the ban. He hasn’t promised to repeal it, but maybe he’ll finally see the light.
So that currently leaves us with two alternatives. It’s to either use expensive compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) that contain toxic mercury, or even much pricier light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs that don’t, but which produce even poorer illumination color quality.
Proponents argue that CFL lamps contain only very small amounts of mercury. Great! But then why are special clean-up instructions, room ventilating precautions and disposal requirements needed in case we happen to break a bulb? And what prevents soil and surface water contamination from countless units that ultimately wind up in landfills?
John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, expressed serious concerns regarding CFL dangers to workers who handle trash and recycling. In a National Public Radio interview he explained “The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens.”
Although some states and counties have outlawed putting CFL bulbs in the trash, it remains questionable how many people will comply with that prohibition. Pete Keller, a spokesman for Eco Lights Northwest, a Washington state company that recycles fluorescent lamps, believes that “… most people do want to recycle, but if it’s not made easy, it doesn’t happen. And they’re [CFLs] small enough to fit in a trash can. So by nature, I think most people are not recyclers. So if it’s small enough to fit in a trash can, that’s where it ends up.”
Here’s where the whole matter get’s particularly confusing. On one hand, politicians who legislated the incandescent bulb ban virtually mandating use of CFL don’t appear to regard mercury to be a big deal. At the same time, the EPA now plans to regulate mercury emissions from coal plants that provide the electricity to power half of those lights.
They seem to believe we can replace those dirty coal plants with solar and wind power. But there’s a small issue here also. This might be quite inconvenient for people who mostly use lights at night…or who are just too impatient to wait for friendly breezes to blow.
Then again, they say that those CFLs are more efficient…that they’re supposed to use less electricity and last longer. That sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? But will CFL really reduce power use? In 1987 the town of Traer, Iowa distributed 18,000 free bulbs to its residents in a demonstration project to get the answer. The results showed that residential electricity use actually rose by 8% because people tended to use more lights and keep them on longer believing that the lighting was cheaper.
Do those CFL lamps truly last longer? Well, apparently that depends on how long you leave them on. If you turn them on and off frequently they reportedly burn out quite fast. (Actually, wasn’t that “turning off when not in use” concept originally thought to be a good power conservation idea?) They also don’t last long in a “hot” environment where there isn’t much airflow around a lamp, such as in a recessed fixture or downlight can.
Michael Siminovitch, who directs the California Lighting Center at the University of California, Davis, likes CFLs. Yet he admitted to the New York Times that “In pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumers.” He confessed that they are “not lasting quite as long as consumers have been led to believe.”
And what about lighting quality? Well, take color, for example. Imagine that you care about distinguishing between brown and purple so that you don’t pick a bad necktie and your socks match? Well that might be a small problem with CFL. On the other hand, no one will be likely to notice unless you go outside during daylight…and their mismatched outfits will probably look just as dumb. A guide produced by lightbulb researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute declares that CFL bulbs fall so short of the needed color rendering index (CRI) of 85 to 90 that most manufacturers don’t even list this poor rating information on their packages.
CFL packaging information often overstates the amount of light the lamps put out compared with supposedly equivalent incandescent bulbs. They typically require one-third of the wattage to replace them, rather than only the one-fourth advertised. And unlike those old obsolete relics, you will need to wait for a couple of minutes or so for your modern, improved CFL to reach full brightness. Consider also that some types don’t work with dimmer switches, just in case you might wish for some silly reason to adjust an illumination level to read or doze. But since they tend to automatically become dimmer over time, you can patiently wait for that to happen, and rest later.
Does any of this maybe cause you to wonder why, if CFLs are that good, government needs to pass a law that requires us to buy them… and to prohibit future sales of a safer type that lots of us continue to prefer? We have to assume that those smart legislators that came up with this law have some really good reasons, right? After all, we voted for the majority of them…or at least some people must have.
Could it be a clever strategy intended to have us purchase and stockpile the old bulbs as a way to boost the economy? Probably not. The problem with that theory is that if our government doesn’t let American companies sell the kind of products we want it, that won’t help our economy or create jobs. Not even “green” jobs.
Take GE’s Winchester plant closing for example. Rather than changing over to CFL production, which is much more labor-intensive, 200 U.S. job positions went to China where employees are paid much less. Pat Doyle, who had worked at the plant for 26 years, told the Washington Post, “We’ve been sold out. First sold out by the government. Then sold out by GE.”
GE has been increasingly shipping jobs overseas. At the end of 2000 more than half of its employee workforce (54%) was located in the U.S. By 2010 U.S. workers comprised 44% of the total, with foreign business providing $9 billion of their total $14.2 billion profits. Yet last year they not only avoided paying any U.S. taxes, but actually received a $3.2 billion tax benefit…this after receiving $16 billion in 2008 Federal Reserve bailouts along with hundreds of millions more in green energy business subsidies. Given those remarkable financial achievements, there should be little wonder that GE’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, would be selected to chair a new Obama administration Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
And while it’s admittedly only a hunch, this leads to another theory. Maybe the CFL initiative is being launched as part of a broader “Jobs for Loans” exchange with China. Wouldn’t this be a logical follow-up to its previous clunker program?