Seeing the light - China Dialogue

Seeing the light

Legislators in California recently introduced bills to end the use of Thomas Edison’s iconic invention, the incandescent light bulb. Terry Tamminen hails the energy savers.

If you found a gold coin on the sidewalk, would you pick it up? Of course you would. Well what about US$3 billion worth of gold coins?

Saving energy is like finding money in the street, because it saves money and the environment in the process. A recent study showed that a 75 watt incandescent (tungsten) light bulb costs nearly US$10 per year to own and operate over the life of the bulb. By contrast, a compact fluorescent bulb that produces an equal amount of light, costs only US$3.50 per year. Taking those figures, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, estimates that if each of their 100 million customers bought just one compact fluorescent bulb to replace an incandescent bulb in their home it would save those consumers over US$3 billion.

Of course “seeing the light” of energy conservation is not just about money, although that’s a logical place to start. Each of those energy-miser bulbs will also reduce the need to burn fuels to make electricity the equivalent of about 110 pounds of coal and reduce some 450 pounds of greenhouse gases. In California, the average home has 40 bulbs, so going beyond Walmart’s modest one-bulb-per-customer goal will deliver dramatic environmental and economic benefits.

That’s why legislators in California recently introduced bills to end the use of Thomas Edison’s iconic invention, the tungsten filament incandescent light bulb, within a few years. One of these bills carries a humorous title, but a very serious purpose. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Democrat from Burbank, California, has introduced the "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb Act" that would ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012. The 80 million light bulbs sold in California each year may soon be helping us to solve global warming, reduce the need to build costly new power plants, and put billions back into consumers pockets. Not bad for a simple device that most of us take for granted.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from San Rafael, California, introduced another measure that would phase out the incandescents by 2018, starting with state-run facilities.

These measures are not without controversy, of course. Environmentalists fear the mercury used in compact fluorescents will make its way into landfills and ultimately our food or water supply, much as that highly toxic substance has already polluted the environment from the burning of coal. Business leaders fear the ban, claiming that the initial cost of buying compact fluorescents will hurt the economy, despite the obvious longterm gains. And then there are those who simply feel we should not prescribe what technologies or products consumers may or may not use.

But enlightened public policy around our energy consumption has already been demonstrated in California, paying big dividends for decades. In the 1970s, Californians were faced with a growing economy and a shortage of electricity. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 had raised energy costs, making an even bigger impact on the economy. The Clean Air Act has passed Congress just a few years earlier and California arguably the home of smog was struggling to reduce air pollution from sources like power plants.

The California Energy Commission went to work, designing and enacting numerous appliance efficiency standards for everything from lighting to dish washers. The result? In the past 30 years, Americans on average have increased their electricity consumption by 50%, but the consumption of Californians has remained level, making us the most energy-efficient state in the nation. The federal government has now adopted many of California’s appliance and other energy standards, making them the law of the land for everyone. Consumers didn’t lose choice – there are still dozens of makes and models of refrigerators to choose from, for example but all of those choices are energy-efficient and save both money and the environment. Why not do the same with light bulbs?

Apparently the “tree hugging” residents of California are not alone in this strategy. Australia recently enacted a similar ban on incandescent bulbs and other states and countries are looking to follow suit. As millions of more energy efficient bulbs are produced, the cost will come down, making them even better bargains. Moreover, the scientists have just begun. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) and other technology may soon deliver yet another quantum improvement in energy efficiency for lighting, meaning we may soon be banning compact fluorescents for being too wasteful in the near future!

Terry Tamminen directs the Climate Program at the New America Foundation and is the former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. His latest book is “Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of our Oil Addiction” (Island Press).

Homepage photo by Gerard Baron