Why Banning Incandescent Lightbulbs Isn’t a Bright Idea

Clearly the current hysteria over global warming is driving the headlong rush for energy alternatives.

Republican Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation aimed at setting target dates, beginning Jan. 1, 2012, to ban the sale of traditional incandescent light bulbs — switching America over to low-energy alternatives. And why not? Don't the new low-energy "compact fluorescent bulbs" (CFLs) use just one-fifth of the energy of traditional bulbs? Isn't it a no-brainer?

Harman is taking her lead from the European Union, which recently banned the sale of non-CFLs across its member nations from 2009 — even though there is a raft of hidden economic, energy and environmental factors with which neither the EU nor Harman seem cognizant.

Harman maintains that implementing such a ban would be, "an important first step toward making every household, business and public building in America more energy-efficient." Commenting on the Huffington Post blog, Harman said, "It can help transform America into an energy-efficient and energy-independent nation." That is, if America is still able to operate in the dim light of the low-energy obfuscated facts.

For a start, CFL low-energy light bulbs are up to twenty times more expensive to produce than the standard tungsten-filament bulbs that Harman wants scrapped. She might also like to know that the manufacture process for CFLs uses up to ten times the energy than is used in the manufacture of traditional bulbs. In addition, CFLs need much more ventilation (top and bottom). A recent review of what such a switchover will mean for England in the wake of the EU ban revealed that up to 50 percent of existing fittings would need changing — at an estimated cost of around $6 billion. Heaven knows what a similar exercise would reveal for American businesses and homes.

And that's just the beginning. Low-energy light bulbs do not give off a steady stream of light — they flicker fifty times a second, which can be expected to contribute to health and safety problems, with associated financial costs, down the line.

But perhaps worst of all, is the fact that low-energy bulbs are currently made using toxic materials. Chief among them is mercury, a substance that, ironically, the EU banned from its landfill sites just last year. For the EU nations special recycling arrangements will have to be made to dispose of CFLs, thus incurring a further cost. With between three and five milligrams of mercury in each CFL, and with an estimated 150 million CFLs sold in the United States in 2006, that's a whole lot of non-recycled bulbs that could end up in garbage dumps. Mercury can affect the nervous system, damage the kidney and liver and, in sufficient quantity, can kill. No wonder scientists and environmentalists are worried.

Philips Lighting, the world's largest producers of light bulbs, has joined with environmental lobbies in support of Harman's ban. But as legislation applies to all lightbulb manufacturers none are going to lose market share by the switch; and, given the expense of the new bulbs, can expect something of a windfall profit after a ban.

In Europe the ban, due to come into effect in under two years, does not provide much time for EU member states to plan for the changes. The ban was enacted centrally without consultation with member nations. Thus the EU has chosen to pursue the same dictatorial path chosen by Cuba's Fidel Castro (in an attempt to ease the strain on the island's hard-pressed electricity grid) two years ago. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez's "vote-winning" Marxist move saw him distributing millions of energy-saving bulbs free of charge.

Australia announced in February that it would only "gradually ban" the old light bulbs that failed to comply with new energy-efficient standards. The U.K. is still to consider how it will respond to this latest move of the EU.

Clearly the current hysteria over global warming is driving the headlong rush for energy alternatives. But as the figures and problems detailed above show only too plainly, the associated issues are clearly less simplistic than our Green lobbyist friends will allow.

The day before Harman lodged her legislative proposal, Representative Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) and Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) held a joint news conference calling for more efficient lighting options in America. But they declared: "The last thing we want to do is force legislation down people's throats."

Surely, once the not inconsiderable problems associated with low-energy bulbs are more publicly exposed, their approach, and not Harman's — at least until there are further technological breakthroughs — would appear to be the more enlightened.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Peter C. Glover.