Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Overblown light bulbs at Reason [updated]

"Lights Out for America's Favorite Light Bulb," by Shawn Regan at Reason. This piece epitomizes the misinformation now spreading about the light bulb "ban." Notice how the word "halogen" shows up in there without explanation or elaboration, before the writer focuses laser-like on the downsides of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). We're told that the "traditional" incandescent has been "effectively" banned, but we're not given the rather crucial context that halogen bulbs are incandescent lamps--they're incandescent lamps that meet the new energy-efficiency standards (by using halogen gas to redeposit tungsten atoms on the filament).

Instead of buying a 60 watt "traditional" incandescent, you can now buy a 43 watt halogen incandescent. Instead of a 100 watt "traditional" incandescent you can buy a 72 watt halogen incandescent. Instead of a 40 watt "traditional" bulb, you can buy a 29 watt halogen incandescent. These new products are basically the same as the old products, except they are more efficient.

They also cost more--which is why it is wrong as well to suggest there are no costs or tradeoffs in the new regulations. You'll probably pay something like $1.50 for a halogen incandescent, compared to 50 cents or less for a "traditional" one. On the other hand, you'll be using less electricity, and you may be replacing bulbs less frequently. Whether you end up paying more or less will depend on your electricity rates and other factors. Also, there are many exemptions to the energy efficiency rules, for specialized types of incandescents (such as ones used in fridges, for instance). But consumers are not being forced to buy non-incandescent lamps such as CFLs or LEDs, which is the impression you'll take away if you put stock in articles like the one at Reason.

The Reason article also complains about the "baptists and bootleggers" coalition that backed the new rules when they were legislated in 2007 (pushed by the Bush administration). That charge of crony capitalism is, at best, an oversimplification, as some companies opposed the new rules and those that supported them did so seeking to forestall rules that would have been more onerous. In any case, once the rules were in place and companies had developed new products in response to them (an expensive process), repealing the "ban" would be of dubious effect. For the companies that stopped making "traditional" lamps to start those production lines up again is not exactly a cost-free proposition.

By the way, what kind of "tradition" are energy-inefficient bulbs? Was leaded gasoline also a "tradition"?

For my part, I think a carbon tax (with cuts in other taxes) would be a better way of dealing with energy efficiency (and getting at the key underlying problem: carbon emissions driving climate change) than lamp efficiency standards. But I'll settle for some second-best policies in preference to doing nothing.

UPDATE 1/10: And here's Nick Gillespie doing the same thing in a video format: complaining that the incandescent bulb has been "effectively banned" and replaced by halogen, CFLs and LEDs. Do the people at Reason not know that halogen lamps are incandescents, or do they just not care?

UPDATE 1/11: "Elegy for the Incandescent Bulb," by Tom Purcell at Townhall, offers the same red herring with half the wit. And adds this:
To be sure, you have been so successful, it took the government - not better lighting products - to kill you off. That's because, some argue, you are causing the Earth to warm. 
As electricity passes through your filament, you see, the filament gets white-hot. That is how light is created - but in the process, you also create a lot of heat, and heat is wasted energy.
Me: No more updates on this post.

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