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Mar 112011
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Rep. Joe Barton’s last bright idea – to apologize to BP for having to make reparations for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – earned him national ridicule.

His pandering may not have misfired (much) in the conservative-leaning Texas district he represents, but it was a rude affront to those who earn a living on the gulf, and anyone who cares about the workers and wildlife there.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton

Now, less than a year later, Barton again appears to have his finger on the pulse of the mean-spirited minority.

And there’s a connection. Once again, Barton is thumbing his nose at America’s urge to become more energy efficient. His plan: Roll back  a 2007 law that requires light bulbs to be 30 percent more efficient than old-style incandescent bulbs starting in 2012.

Yes, it’s come to that. Even new light bulb technology is now suspect in certain circles. Oh, how far  we’ve strayed from more ambitious attempts to curb our energy use. Forget carbon pricing or fees on big smokestack polluters. Now, even a nudge in the right direction ignites a controversy.

Rep. Barton and some like-minded cohorts in the House,  Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Steve Burgess (R-Texas) , who also represents… well, it doesn’t matter who he represents, because this group may not be representing the public, so much as they’re representing an ideology, and possibly corporate supporters.

These three have  introduced, H.R. 6144, known as the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act,” which argues for sticking with outmoded technology and would stymie efforts to reduce household electricity consumption.

The question is why?

Barton (whose office declined to comment for this story) has said it is important that we stick with old-style light bulbs because a U.S. light bulb factory recently closed in Virginia. He’s also concerned about mercury in CFL light bulbs, which we’ll get to in a moment. And, he says, old incandescents are  cheaper to buy (but only if you count just their upfront cost).

CFLs consume 25 percent of the energy of old-style light bulbs.

Let’s start with the jobs. It’s true that 200 people lost their positions when the last incandescent light bulb factory in the U.S. closed Winchester, Virginia last year, marking the end of an era.

What Barton fails to mention is that new lighting technology has been creating thousands of jobs, many of them in the U.S., as companies like North Carolina’s Cree, a leader in LED lighting, Philips and Sylvania  expand operations. Cree is even developing a new LED that mimics the old incandescent. These are jobs that would be jeopardized by a political showdown over advanced lighting technology.

But Barton and company are not really worried about jobs. Truth be told, they  just don’t want government telling us what to buy. And they’ll follow that ideology off a cliff.  (One survey, by a conservative pollster, did show that about 70 percent of the respondents didn’t want to “be told” what light bulbs to buy. But the answer might have been generated by the way the question was asked. Good thing the law on the books doesn’t “tell” anyone what to buy. It requires manufacturers to make more energy efficient light bulbs of whatever type they choose.)

Lighting might seem like a filament on the large stage of energy debates. But it accounts for about 20 percent of our household electricity costs. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the switch underway to lighting that’s 30 percent more efficient would save the U.S. $10 billion a year on electricity.

The savings could actually be much greater because CFL light bulbs actually use only about 25 percent of the energy of an old incandescent. What’s more, those who like that friendly warm glow from incandescents will find it replicated not just in newer CFLs, but in new more efficient incandescents coming onto the market, as well as those LEDs that aren’t quite ready for the consumer just yet.

The argument to stick with the light bulb that Edison invented 130 years ago seems to vaporize when you shine a light on it.

So hail to the old ways! Let’s go back to refrigerators with ozone-blasting CFCs and cars without seat belts. They could be powered by leaded gas!

Sounds silly. But this has become a huge battle in Congress, with a corollary bill in the Senate to shutdown lighting progress drawing support from several senators. (Here’s the latest on that.)

Yes, Barton is spot on when he says CFLs are an imperfect solution to the old style incandescent light bulb. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury and must be dealt with very carefully if they break.  The EPA advises the public to take specific steps — to clear the room, avoid handling the debris directly and to dispose of it properly. It’s onerous. But new technology doesn’t always roll out perfectly, and where was the outcry over the mercury that’s been hanging around for decades in all those long tube fluorescent lights in offices and garages everywhere?

The mercury content in CFLs is miniscule, about 4 milligrams, a fraction of the 500 milligrams that floated around in those old-style thermometers, according to the NRDC.

The NRDC argues that newer, more efficient light bulbs will do far more to protect the environment from mercury pollution than they ever could to contaminate it.

Using CFLs could save households $100 to $200 in electricity costs and cut national energy use by an amount equivalent to that consumed by all the houses in Texas every year. The concurrent reduction in air pollution from coal-fired power plants would greatly reduce mercury emissions nationally. Let me say that again, mercury emissions would decline, because we’d be saving energy. (It’s a key point often missed in news stories on this topic.)

“These standards will help cut our nation’s electric bill by over $10 billion a year and will save the equivalent electricity of 30 large power plants,” says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council. “That translates into a whole lot less global warming pollution being emitted.”

Most CFLs also last a long time, compounding their efficiency. Some of mine are six years old, and I can attest to their energy-saving ability. Only two, in a ceiling fan fixture, expired before their time, and were recycled via a Lowe’s recapture center.

As for this breakage issue. I can understand why people with small kids might worry. This is a legitimate concern. But some CFLs come with an extra coating around the “squiggly” part, as Barton calls it, that contains the breakage with an outer sheath. You can also buy CFLs that have the lowest mercury content thanks to a green lighting guide produced by the Environmental Working Group. And it’s possible that LEDs, even more efficient, and mercury-free, will conquer the home lighting market.

So I’m searching for the problem here.

Perhaps those who want to dismantle the energy progress promoted by this Bush-era law  have special interests cheering them on; special interests that prefer the status quo.

Some of Barton’s biggest supporters include electric utilities and oil and gas companies.

We shouldn’t assume, though, that every utility or power provider wants us to waste energy.

MX Energy President and CEO Jeffrey Mayer recently noted that some power companies want to help shape a more sustainable world.

“The transition to more energy efficient lighting is just one example of how a universal small change – something as simple as changing a light bulb – can produce a dramatic and substantial impact on our energy consumption as a nation,” Mayer said. “Some people may be surprised that as an energy provider we would support a move that will translate into people using less of our product. However, the issue of sustainability and energy efficiency has always been at the core of who we are as a company.”

I like to think Mayer, whose company has been carbon neutral for the past few years, is not alone; that he represents the vanguard of the power industry.

But maybe some of Barton’s supporters just aren’t there yet. The electric utilities and oil and gas companies that gave him $350,000 of the $2.38 million he raised in the last election cycle may not be ready for new ways to save energy.

Guess they’re still in the dark about how we need to tread more lightly on this planet.

  • Read more about the value of keeping new light bulb technology moving forward at this NRDC fact sheet.

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