In a few weeks the US Congress is likely to vote to phase out the standard incandescent lightbulb within a decade. The frantic race to see who can best appease the global warming alarmists will claim another victim, the friendly glow of the direct descendant of Thomas Edison's filament-based light bulb.
Why would the humble lightbulb, a staple commodity that has raised the standard of living throughout the world, be in the bullseye? It was the incandescent electric light bulb that abolished the tyranny of the night. Our 19th and 20th century ancestors believed it one of the greatest gifts of civilization because they had directly experienced life before electric lighting changed everything. In 2002, former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld briefly reminded us of this blessing when he commented on the satellite imagery revealing the nighttime darkness in North Korea, but other than this brief moment, we seem to have forgotten what we owe to Edison's first invention.
Ironically, the lowly lightbulb became one of the icons of the New Deal, forever connected with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. The REA and the TVA enabled cheap electric power to be available everywhere, even on the remotest farms and ranches. And a substantial part of the American people fell in love with big government because it brought this fruit of civilization, the rollback of the night, to all Americans.
But today, more than anything else, the humble lightbulb is altogether another sort of convenient symbol for big government-a technology dinosaur, perpetrator of evil crimes against the planet. Stopping the wasteful use of kilowatts by American households in the war on greenhouse gases is the new battle cry of the lovers of governmental control over our lives.
There are about 4 billion conventional screw-in light bulb sockets all across America; the vast majority are in homes and apartments. Incandescent light bulbs are in most of these sockets, with some 2 billion or more replaced every year. It is estimated at least $15 billion of electricity is consumed by these inefficient anachronisms, and that by replacing them with more energy efficient types of lightbulbs-primarily post-modern compact fluorescents--that $15 billion could be cut in half.
We are told that as kilowatts could be reduced, we would need fewer nasty coal-fired power generating plants, while winning a major battle against global warming with little pain and even less effort. Everybody wins!
Well, not exactly. Once again, a nice-sounding theory overlooks significant details of the practical outcomes.
Energy conservation lobbyists conveniently overlook the obvious fact that household lightbulbs are primarily used at night-exactly opposite the time of day in which utilities experience peak load demands for daytime heating, air conditioning and commercial lighting. Peak load shedding is what is most necessary for taking coal fired power plants out of commission.
Reducing nighttime lightbulb consumption of kwhs will do almost nothing to shave peak demand. Moreover, with non-peak kwhs reduced at night, utilities will now have fewer revenues on which to earn a return on their invested capital. Utilities must build up their physical plant to meet the peaks, and the capital to finance that equipment has to be paid for 24 hours a day. Thus, utilities will have to raise rates on the remainder of the kwhs we use for everything else, from washing machines to hair dryers to computers.
Household power used by lightbulbs is actually dwarfed these days by major appliances and high tech consumer electronics- such as wide screen TVs, computers and video games along with internet servers, the biggest energy hogs besides cars and trucks.
And since the new CFLs produce inferior light compared to incandescents, we'll need more of them to read, shave, comb our hair and brush our teeth. Assuming literacy and personal hygiene are still hallmarks of civilized life after the global warming alarmists are done with their crusade to rid us of the blessings of the evil civilization that rapes Mother Gaia.
By banning the incandescent lightbulb Congress will forcibly remove a staple commodity from the marketplace, replacing it with products that are far more expensive, less reliable and more hazardous, notably the much ballyhooed compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL).
CFL lightbulbs have been around for well over a decade. Only recently have they come in enough varieties and flavors to capture about 10% of the available sockets. But they are still at least 5 times more expensive than regular incandescents, which if replaced in their entirety would cost consumers an extra $4 to 5 billion at the cash register. No doubt millions of Americans will enthusiastically embrace this new technology and be willing to pay extra to get it.
But millions more will not fare so well. This ban will be a tax on poor people and the silent majority-retirees on fixed incomes, single working parents, low wage earners working double shifts or two jobs along with the average Joes and Marys who live each week paycheck-to-paycheck. They don't have cable TV to watch the Home and Garden channel, and can't afford to replace their functional if drab table lamp fixtures, much less employ a green ideology-toting residential lighting designer.
For these Americans, burdens come in large packages. Relief arrives less often, and then in small envelopes, such as reduced inflationary pressures on staple commodities like lightbulbs and all the necessities of life purchased at low prices from Wal-Mart. Of course Wal-Mart is yet another enemy of the trendy affluent class that wants to dictate how the rest of us lead our lives.
And guess where the extra purchase prices for these CFLs will wind up? In the pockets of Chinese manufacturers, because not a single CFL is produced in the US.
And it gets worse. As Chinese manufacturers add enough manufacturing capacity to produce ten times as many CFLs , they will need several new coal-fired power plants to run the new factories. This comes on top of the already breathtaking pace today of construction in coal fired electric power plants in China - at a clip of one new plant every week. Don't even think about asking about what kind of pollution control will be operating on those Chinese plants.
A tax on poor people in the US so the Chinese can add more coal fired power plants. Now there's a bright idea.
There's even more to this story: one more dirty little secret that the greens won't tell you about.
CFLs contain mercury. You didn't know that? Just a drop you say? How about up to 5 milligrams per lightbulb. If all 4 billion incandescent sockets were filled with CFLs we'd have 20 billion milligrams of mercury spread around every single US household. By the way, 20 billion milligrams is nearly 50,000 pounds.
That 50,000 pounds of mercury amongst 300 million people, if indiscriminately thrown away, will eventually find its way to your favorite landfill and public drinking water supply. Knock over a table lamp and shatter a CFL in your house, and you have a toxic waste situation on your hands right in the living room, bedroom or dining room.
On the other hand, at least half of all mercury emissions from coal fired power plants currently is captured by scrubbers, and clean coal technologies promise to eliminate 2/3rds of what remains. Not so for CFLs-- which can't operate without mercury.
So there you have it. Congress will soon enact legislation to impose a tax on poor people that will directly pass to Chinese companies, contribute to lower literacy and less personal hygiene while making industrial policy that will increase greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and spread a hazardous heavy metal into the environment.
Ban the bulb is a no-brainer , only this time the empty-headed variety.
Luminus Maximus is the pen name of a longtime observer of the industry