Will The Light Bulb Ban Inspire a Conversion?

Why is the incandescent light bulb ban such a lightning rod for Tea Party-inspired remorse from big government Republicans? Simple: it's a liberty-stealing assault on our privacy and common sense, outrageously expensive, and doesn't solve any of the problems it's intended to fix. That's only for starters. The most egregious feature is that the ban makes fools of the American people who willingly succumb to such nonsense from Washington, D.C.

Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), campaigning to advance his chances in ascending the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, now says he'd open hearings to reconsider the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs.

His first witness should be Dennis Miller, who quipped on his radio show about dreaded CFLs, the most ballyhooed replacement for incandescents: "I don't care what my electric bill is. I haven't worked my entire life so that my living room can look like a Soviet Bloc stairwell during a James Bond fight scene." A good line for Miller to express humorously what most people are thinking.

And it would be a good move for Upton to seek some conservative creds, given the testosterone of by his rival Joe Barton (R-TX). Maneuvering to keep his top spot for the Republicans on Energy &Commerce, it was Barton, knowing how to push all of the red buttons, who in October introduced a bill to repeal the light bulb ban in its entirety. 

Barton, vilified for sympathizing with BP during the Gulf oil spill fiasco and too much the smoke bomb launcher for the likes of the wine-and-brie cocktail circuit Republicans, knows that the silly light bulb ban is Exhibit A for government crotch-sniffing stupidity of the TSA airport screening variety. The nanny state runneth over, making light bulbs a ripe target for Tea Partiers.

Upton, a favorite with so-called bipartisan moderates showing too many sympathies with the global warming crowd, having been an outspoken friend of CFLs and an enthusiastic co-sponsor of the incandescent phase out in 2007, has been badly torched by right-sided true believers.

But Upton is no dummy  He and the other Republicans-who-too-often-behave-like-Democrats now know that they are on probation, realizing that those who remain co-conspirators in government overreach will be driven into the political wilderness in 2012.

While late to the party, Upton finally figured out that the incandescent ban is the perfect symbol  for the Tea Party victors on Nov. 2, showing how government busybodies and central planners have imposed another idiotic, costly, and unwarranted strip-mining of consumer choice. This time, it's justified by dubious energy savings while ignoring economic hardships to be borne by incandescent factory workers and fixed-income seniors. And shall I mention once again the environmental hazards of those dreaded CFL alternatives?

The ban's defenders still insist that it would reduce the need for up to thirty coal-fired electric power plants, according to Noah Horowitz, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal. This might be true if household lighting were used during peak hours. But it's not. Household lighting is used primarily in the early morning and evening hours, when electric power demand is nearly at its lowest. While energy-efficient lighting may reduce homeowners' operating costs, falling  kwh demand in off-peak hours will simply depress electric utility revenues, leaving  power plant operations and costs unchanged, provoking the utilities to file for rate increases to keep their revenues even and profits whole. How's that for unintended consequences? Who will win the Nobel prize  in economics for that?

How many coal fired power plants have been shut down due to energy efficiency demand reductions from CFLs that have already captured 25% of the incandescent market? Can you name one? How many proposed shutdowns due to additional energy efficiency from a billion more CFLs have been filed for PUC approvals? Can you name one? I didn't think so. Neither could Joe Barton, and now Fred Upton is scratching his head.

Should we wonder why electric utilities have been silent about the incandescent ban but now actually favor power-hogging electric vehicles? Electric utility operators aren't dopes, either.

Apart from the headache-inducing lousy color and slow warm-up and poor dimming options, CFLs are hand-held toxic mercury bombs -- and now a billion of them have infiltrated sockets all across the country. Would you rather have mercury trapped in  power plant scrubbers or tossed in the household curbside trash barrels when the CFLs burn out -- usually long before the end of their advertised lifespans? Where are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club when we really need them?

While LEDs don't share the same hazmat component as CFLs, who can afford these luxury candles anyhow? For brightness levels far less than a 60-watt incandescent, consumers are expected to pay not 29 cents, but 29 dollars for an LED light bulb. Whoa! For 30 million unemployed Americans and 75 million seniors on fixed incomes, this is just another economic kneecapping delivered by the geniuses inside the Beltway.

The light bulb ban, for all of its absurdities -- including the job creation and economic boon to China, where all of the incandescent replacements are produced -- is almost as witless as the low-flow flush toilet mandates. The last time I flew from the Upper Midwest to the East Coast, the Great Lakes still looked full. And while the rising sea levels and more abundant tropical rainstorms from global warming give us more water than a trillion flushes, tell me again the purpose of low flow-toilets that don't work. Maybe Upton can reopen hearings on why multiple flushes are more of a necessity than a courtesy.

Unlike members of Congress who may have passed the bar exam but flunked Econ 101 and forgot how to read, regular everyday Americans know that the light bulb ban doesn't pass the Everyman uncommon sense test.

Fred Upton has yet to prove he's undergoing a born-again religious conversion towards more limited government, restoring private property rights, and supporting free-market choices for the people. At least he's purporting to begin his own journey of redemption. That journey just might be accompanied by a revival in uncommon sense. If just another political pander, though, it will be lights out for Upton and the remaining unrepentant big-government Republicans.

Luminus Maximus is the pen name of a longtime lighting industry observer.