Future Dim For 100-Watt Bulb, Despite Congress' Stall

Dec 22, 2011

The trillion-dollar budget bill that Congress passed last weekend includes plenty of non-spending provisions tucked into it. One of these so-called riders is aimed at saving the 100-watt incandescent light bulb.

But the move is more about politics than light.

Strictly speaking, the issue is this: Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy. So under federal law, they're being slowly phased out. The first to go, starting on New Year's Day, is the 100-watt bulb.

But what looked like energy efficiency when President George W. Bush signed the law four years ago now looks like oppressive big government to many conservatives.

"Let me tell you, President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want in the United States of America," GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said on the campaign trail in June.

Speaking during a House debate in July, Texas Republican Michael Burgess said consumers should be deciding whether to use 100-watt bulbs, "not bureaucrats in Washington."

Ultimately, this save-the-bulbs campaign produced the rider in the spending bill, which says the Energy Department cannot spend money to enforce the phase-out of 100-watt bulbs.

At least, not for the next nine months.

Too Late?

The rider won plaudits on the right.

"Congressional Republicans have stood up for American consumers' being able to make the choice of what lighting products they wish to use," said Frank McCaffrey, a commentator with the advocacy group Americans for Limited Government.

But from the perspective of the lighting industry, this rider is several years too late to make a difference. And it doesn't want Congress changing things now.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association, representing 95 percent of the light bulb industry, spent months giving show-and-tell demonstrations to lawmakers.

The association's Joseph Higbee said its representatives would hook up two incandescents side by side — an old 100-watt bulb using argon gas and a new 72-watt bulb using halogen.

"And you can't tell the difference. We wanted to make sure every congressman and congresswoman understood that they and their constituents would still be able to purchase an incandescent light bulb," Higbee said.

The association's member companies long ago started changing their product lines from traditional incandescents to halogens, compact fluorescents and LEDs, Higbee said.

"Delaying enforcement undermines those investments and creates regulatory uncertainty," he said.

Uncertainty — the word that always pops up in debates over regulation. And uncertainty is something that big retailers want to avoid here as well.

Jaclyn Pardini, a spokeswoman for Lowe's home improvement stores, said the company "is committed to abiding by the [original] legislation and it does not change our plan" to stop selling 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

Shrinking Production

The nation's biggest seller of light bulbs is Home Depot.

"It really doesn't mean a whole lot to us at the retail level," said Bill Hamilton, Home Depot's vice president of merchandising for electrical products.

He said the politicians aren't giving consumers the whole story.

"I think one of the portions that's not being told by our legislators is the importance of really using energy-efficient lamps. You know, up to 20 percent of a consumer's cost of operating their home comes from their lighting," he said.

Besides, he said, this isn't just a question of U.S. production and U.S. policy. Europe, Australia and Canada are also moving away from the old incandescent bulbs. And worldwide, production of the old incandescents is shrinking.

So far, there haven't been any reported runs on 100-watt bulbs. In fact, Hamilton says demand is up right now for all light bulbs — the old ones and the new ones.

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