skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Dale Bryk’s Blog

Colbert Report Covers Lightbulb Wars

Dale Bryk

Posted March 11, 2011

, , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Step aside healthcare and financial reform.  There’s a new political lightning rod in the halls of Congress these days.  It’s called the lightbulb.  That’s right, in the midst of everything from government shutdown fears to unrest in the Middle East, the Tea Party has found a new threat to our freedom - lighting improvements.

The story begins back in 2007, when the government passed a new lighting standard requiring bulbs to be 25% more efficient.  This standard was met with bipartisan support and President Bush’s signature.  The reasoning for it was simple:  our lightbulbs waste 90% of their energy as heat and after 125 years on the market, it’s time for a re-tooling.  Following in the footsteps of other efficiency standards that have made our refrigerators 90% more efficient and required our cars to get more miles per gallon, this lighting standard will put better bulbs on the shelves and cut our nation’s electric bill by $10 BILLION a year.  It’ll also zero out the pollution from 30 coal-fired power plants.

Despite the fact that President Reagan was the first to herald in federal efficiency standards 30 years ago, Republicans members of Congress including Representatives Joe Barton, Mike Enzi and Michele Bachmann have decided this lighting upgrade is an assault on our freedom and have introduced legislation to reverse the standards.  Bachmann, in fact, named her bill the “Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act.”

They claim the standard is an example of government overreach that will limit consumer choice, destroy jobs, threaten our health and even ruin childhood memories.  They make references about light bulb police coming into your homes to take away your beloved incandescent bulbs.  Talk about overreach. 

To better explain their complaints, I turn to one of America’s most trusted voices, Stephen Colbert –

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Light Bulb Ban
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

The irony, of course, is that Barton and Bachman’s efforts would reduce choice, not increase it.   Not to mention that reversing this standard would also derail plans for new job-creating lighting factories and take as much as $200 per year out of the checkbooks of every U.S. household.

Luckily, Stephen gave me a chance to rebut the claims.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Light Bulb Ban - Dale Bryk
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

See – these standards are all about choice.  The new standards don’t force any type of bulb on consumers, and they don’t ban any type of bulb either.

Want to stick with incandescents? You still can – it’s just that new and improved incandescent bulbs will put out the same sort of light using 28 percent less energy than old-school bulbs. Here are the before and after shots – can you tell the difference? 


Photo Credit: Anthony Clark/NRDC

And as for the mercury concerns – yes, CFLs contain two to four milligrams of mercury. For comparison sake, the thermometers many of us grew up with in our mouths contained about 500 milligrams of mercury – the equivalent of about 125 CFLs. 

In contrast, U.S. power plants pumped nearly 90,000 pounds of mercury in to the air in 2008, much of it in order to generate power for outdated light bulbs. That’s 90,000 pounds of mercury floating into the air we breathe and the fish we eat.  As I told Stephen – that’s the mercury we need to be worried about.  But hey – the beauty of this standard is that you don’t have to buy CFLs.  That image above shows a mercury-free advanced incandescent.  They’ll be on the same store shelf as the CFLs.  And they’ll offer you the same great shape and light you’re used to – just with fewer watts. 

It should also be said that, despite claims to the contrary, the lighting standards are driving R&D investments in the United States and creating new jobs. Sylvania recently retooled its St. Mary’s, Penn. incandescent bulb plant to make new incandescents that meet the new standards. Philips Lumiled in California, Cree Inc. in North Carolina and Lighting Science Group in Florida are creating thousands of new jobs at factories that make new LED bulbs.  And bulb maker TCP Inc., which previously manufactured all its bulbs in China, announced plans in 2009 for its first U.S. plant, in Ohio, to help meet the growing demand for CFLs because of the new standards. When’s the last time you heard of a company moving its manufacturing from China to the United States? 

And Hasbro, the maker of the Easy-Bake oven, has also revamped their design, building the new Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven which features a heating element that does not use a light bulb but instead offers an extensive assortment of mixes reflective of the hottest baking trends for today (My colleague, Kit Kennedy, wrote extensively about these issues in her February 2011 blog "Toy Story").

Wow – look what happens when you ask industry to innovate – they do.

Luckily, consumers already are adapting to better bulbs - and they like them. A February poll by USA Today found that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans have recently purchased new, more efficient light bulbs and 84 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with them.  Hopefully our leaders will take the hint and find something more productive to do with their time.  (To help them get the message – go here).

Share | | |


lighthouseMar 12 2011 07:43 AM

No comments here?
Hopefully that is because you haven't got around to reading them yet...
If you are sure of being right,
then you are hardly afraid to publish criticism of what you say? ;-)

I will only put one link here, which gives an alternative view of everything you say,
on the savings,
on the actual lighting choice,
on the mercury issue, and so on

It is of course about a ban:
Any bulb not meeting the required usage standard is banned,
and Halogen bulbs still have differences, in light output type and of course cost, for marginal savings in energy and slightly longer lifespan,
which are trade-offs.

Halogens have also already been around for some time, and are not voluntarily preferred by consumers themselves on the market place

Any great purchase of them reduces (even more) the whole energy savings rationale for a ban.
LEDS, meanwhile, are not yet attractively priced for any omnidirectional bright replacement lighting

This is of course why governments push the use of CFLs, with happy cooperation from profit-seeking manufacturers,
as outlined on the above site, with documentation and copies of official USA Dept of Energy and other communications.

I would finish by saying that I agree that there is a bit of hystery around CFLs - all lights have their advantages.

I also agree that energy efficiency is good in society - but is best achieved by increasing competition, not decreasing it, all the way from power supply with competition between power plants to deliver electricity more efficiently, including in the grids, and competition between manufacturers keeping down their energy costs

Competition between light bulb manufacturers forces them to supply light bulbs people actually want -and they do of course also want bulbs that save them money in the long run.
"Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run"?
Think of Energizer battery bunnies, or washing up liquid commercials - they don't try and ban the cheap competition
(or their own less profitable alternatives)
to get easy profits out of the consumer!

PaladinMar 12 2011 10:07 AM

The irony, of course, is that Barton and Bachman’s efforts would reduce choice, not increase it. Not to mention that reversing this standard would also derail plans for new job-creating lighting factories and take as much as $200 per year out of the checkbooks of every U.S. household.

^ Pure Orwellian BS. This essentially removes a class of product based on arbitrary standards, thus removing choice.

There's at least three American plants that have been idled because of this mandate. If this ban is lifted, I know of at least one plant in Winchester, Virgina that could be put back into service, and putting 200 people BACK to work.

The new standards don’t force any type of bulb on consumers, and they don’t ban any type of bulb either.

^yes it does. In 2020, another set of standards come into play. These standards remove ALL incandescents from the market because they are too stringent and incandescents can't reach these standards because of limitations of the technology

A February poll by USA Today found that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans have recently purchased new, more efficient light bulbs

^ The USA today report was skewed because of low reporting numbers. The dissatisfaction rate is closer to 60%. There's strong evidence of hoarding in here in Central Texas as the light bulbs go fast when are restocked.

On dimmers, I’ve caught the damn things on fire using a non dimmer bulb in a dimmer test rig. I have a ceramic socket connected to a typical off the shelf dimmer, and a plug. This rig also has a 2 amp in line fuse to protect the house circuit. Basically I put the bulb in the socket, dim it about 20%, sit back and wait. In about 8 minutes, the base of the bulb starts to smoke, then a few minutes later, the base then catches fire. The two amp fuse NEVER BLEW.

This type of mistake is very easy to make. And those who have whole house dimmer systems, called X10, are screwed. There’s millions of houses built in the 60’s and 70’s have these systems.

Dimming on these is a joke at best, and dangerous at worst (see above mentioned fire hazard). CFL’s will NEVER be fully dimmable simply because the electronics in the base and how electricity/current works. A CFL in a dimmer is about the same putting a VCR or DVD player on a dimmer. The effect is the same. The power supply is not linear and must have a certain amount of power to operate. For a bases for comparison, old tube type radios (even tube type televisions), both transformer and transformerless, CAN BE used on a voltage reducer (this is a common troubleshooting technique), because the power supplies on these are linear. In other words, if the power transformer is designed to put 350 volts out at 110 volt input, if the input voltage is dropped to 100 volts, the output drops to 320 or so. Switching power (non linear) supplies cannot do this.

On mercury, you can’t really have it both ways. There’s about as much mercury in CFL’s as the dot at the end of this sentence. Multiply that times a thousand for these bulbs that won’t be recycled, and then you have a real problem. Plus the mercury from coal plants can be scrubbed, where the mercury from these bulbs is going directly into the landfills. The greens need realize that a realistic large scale recycling program for these bulbs is simply non existent. That guy that lives out in the country, 15 miles from Home Depot sure the hell is not going to drive back into town for a stupid light bulb. That bulb is going into the trash, or worse yet, burned.

On/off cycles, basically normal use for incans, shortens their life span by 90%, same for bathrooms where there’s moisture. There’s reports that incans have outlasted cfl’s two, sometimes even three to one.I was subbing in an elementary school where the Janitor was replacing a CFL (the THIRD ONE in TWO WEEKS) with a GE incan because the constant on/off cycle from the kids was killing the bulbs in as little as three days.

Another thing I’ve seen over and over is “ that if the bulb is dying early, buy better bulbs or your’e not using them right” and then mention some website to purchase bulbs. This is pretentious and show a complete lack of understanding how human nature works. First of all, that aforementioned rural guy, sure the hell is not going online to buy bulbs. It’s the same story for almost 90% of Americans. They are going to buy where they normally buy, and Home Depot and other big box stores, only carry mid to low range bulbs. So it’s a triple shot, high initial cost, low quality bulb and frequent replacement because they only last two months at best. So the better bulbs are more or less out of reach for most.

CFLs (according to the package) can’t be used upside down, in ceiling fans (vibration) in enclosed fixtures, in recessed cans, in cold weather, in timer controlled fixtures, in security fixtures with motion sensors, in bathrooms because of moisture. So, exactly where are we supposed to use these bulbs?

On power plants, the whole logic that removing incandescents will remove plants is false.

Pwr gens have to keep a certain amount of reserve online to handle spikes and insure stability. That never changes. Here’s why. Take a hot summer day in the south, pwr gens ramp up during the afternoon to handle the a/c load, then ramp down again during the off peak hours. Lighting, especially residential, is used during the OFF PEAK hours, when the demand is the lowest.

How is it that something that's actually used during lowest demand time of day, is actually going keep plants from being built, or taken off line? Especially when they have to ramp up again the next day to handle the load? Residential lighting makes up about 6% of the total draw on the grid.

A study done by BC Hydro (Canada) shows that the savings might be more illusional in colder climates because the heat lost by incans has to be made up with whole house heating systems.

Anyway, I digress. This whole boondoggle is about greed. Nothing else, again, it’s greed. The major players couldn’t make enough money off incans, and want them gone for a better profit margin.

M. HornlandMar 13 2011 11:13 PM

I whole heartedly agree with increasing the efficiency of light bulbs - its as large an energy and public health issue as increasing fuel efficiency in vehicles.

It's insane to argue against the concept of asking companies to better their products to help people save money, energy and increase jobs in the US.

Thanks for sharing the facts and providing your research - too bad the commenters that have been included already prefer here-say.

lighthouseMar 15 2011 11:03 AM

agree with paladin

re M Hornland that our comments are
that hardly applies to the link
in Paladin comment,
or the many official links on the site.

For example:

Why less than1% of American energy is saved by a ban, using US Dept of Energy and other references

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Dale Bryk’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In