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September 16, 2009 |  5 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Jens F. Laurson & George A. Pieler

Bulbs and Bimmers

Jens F. Laurson & George A. Pieler: Banning the Edison bulb is an outrageous example of legislative overkill. Energy efficiency is an important issue, but governments have not the right to dictate their people what kind of light they have to use. Laws addressing such personal decisions are a gross violation of one’s right to privacy.

BMW used the season premiere of AMC's hit "Mad Men" to launch a multimedia ad campaign comparing its new diesel crossovers to the eco-‘responsibility' of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL). The idea, helpfully spelled out in case it isn't obvious, is that CFLs, just like BWMs, will save the planet. Or a bit of it.

Germans may not agree, since they are busy hoarding 100-watt incandescents, the first traditional bulbs banned under new EU directives. And the analogy is flawed elsewhere, too: While the regular-Edison's incandescent-light bulb isn't energy-efficient (at all), CFLs have their own eco-problems (hazardous mercury waste, disposal problems, and its efficiency claims now questioned, too). The ‘responsibility' analogy gets worse, considering the success of the much more expensive CFL needs incandescents being barred from the market. Gaining market share through strict government mandate (by literally banning alternatives), like CFLs, surely, hopefully, isn't BMW's future business plan?

Despite offering easy political Zeitgeist points,  banning the bulb is an outrageous example of legislative overkill; political do-gooding run amuck. The decision (at least in Australia, China, Europe, and the US) to ban the Edison bulb is at least three-ways outrageous.  First, it is impractical. Even if this interference by officials (unelected, in China's and Europe's case)  in people's daily lives weren't morally reprobate (it is, and more of that later), it is outrageous that the alleged bona fides of the ban aren't even there.

For one, the little fluorescents aren't up to the task.  The light from CLFs is-currently, largely-terrible. A high frequency flicker that distorts colors, lacks warmth, and makes one look terrible in the morning bathroom mirror. As EMP Syed Kamall points out, it can "disrupt the life of so many people who are visually impaired or suffer from skin problems." When disposed with household trash, CFLs' mercury content  easily undoes any ( speculative anyway) environmental benefit its greater energy efficiency was supposed to bring. At least some of the CFL bulbs aren't even lasting as long as projected, making these costly mandatory replacements far less attractive than they were alleged to be. Yes, CFLs are being refined and improved.  But so are-were-incandescents!

Bureaucrats forcing Edisons to be swapped for CFLs presume people can't make cost-benefit analyses themselves. If energy is expensive, people will find their way to more efficient bulbs (weighing that, as consumers should, against the quality of the light), even if it costs more up-front. No need to dictate rational behavior on such matters. If people don't flock to CLFs, there's a reason, and it isn't because they are stupid or ignorant, as politicians arrogantly presume.

Mandating such narrow-gauge efficiencies via prohibitions is the political equivalent of a blunt machete. Tax incentives would be a better, though still questionable, tool. Rigid mandates just mess with the profit system, which rewards innovative new products that people actually want.  No reason for bulb-makers to invest huge amounts of R&D in building the best bulb, if government has already pre-selected the One Bulb that shall rule them all. As Tim Carney points out, if Edison had wanted to make money like the CFL producers, "he would have lobbied Congress to outlaw the candle in 1879".  

Then, there's a moral issue.  The state-not the EU, not European governments, not the US Government-has no right to interfere so boldly, directly, and intrusively with people's lives. Kamall again: "While we all want to encourage energy efficiency, such a blanket ban on traditional light bulbs puts environmental dogma before the safety of citizens across Europe." People who can't read in bad light, people prone to medical conditions helped by incandescent-or aggravated by fluorescent-light, or those who simply don't like the feel and look of the CFL's emitted light, have the right to illuminate their surroundings as they choose. Already Brussels is telling the public to snoop on their neighbors and turn in illegal traffickers in incandescents. i.e. bulbs that actually work. Ideal summer jobs for Stasi veterans?

Laws dictating such personal decisions are a gross violation of one's right to privacy. The outcry would be great if a law forbade people to own big cars, even BMW's X5 diesel crossover (although that may not be far off). Why should the outcry over lighting be any less, when the infringement on personal liberty is in many ways much greater on the matter of bulbs?

Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum.  George A. Pieler is an attorney and former economic advisor to Sen. Bob Dole.

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Bernhard  Lucke

September 17, 2009

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I think the energy bulb issue is a good example how the European Union and other governments attempt to tackle the environmental crisis. Jens F. Laurson & George A. Pieler are right: It won't work that way. Environmental systems are more complicated.

For example, Australia recently attempted to protect rare seabirds by killing cats and other raptors on an isolated island, claiming they were not native to that environment. The result was a rat plague, which endangered the birds much more than the cats, because rats prey on the eggs. Now the Australians hunt rats. Enormous costs, little results.

We could continue this list, for example with reforestation against desertification which ends in huge fires like in Greece, and so on... but I would like to point out that this linear thinking has long been acknowledged as major problem in environmental sciences. If we adapt our decision-making to nature, using self-regulating systems, we could save much energy. Frederic Vester spent a life on developing tools for developing such self-regulating systems, see, but unfortunately his ideas are not yet sufficiently understood. Right now, the economic crisis would be an excellent opportunity to revise the "rules" towards a more interconnected approach.

The issue certainly is also a matter of national mentalities: While Americans regard every government regulation as attack on their liberty, Europeans are afraid that the governments may not protect them enough from the implications of free decisions. I think both extremes, complete freedom of the markets and tight regulations, have their drawbacks.

We need regulations, but smart ones. For example, energy consumption is best regulated by energy prices - but changing only the price could have serious negative consequences. It would be the usual linear thinking which does not take the many interconnected fields into consideration. Regulations should be based on an analysis of the energy system, its interconnections, and feedbacks. But this is not easy to communicate, probably the main obstacle for taking really informed decisions. And the "solution" can't be given in an opinion piece like this.
Marek  Swierczynski

September 18, 2009

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My liberal self wants to shout: no one can take my bulb from me! Fat cats from Brussels will first have to leave their V12 limos before they get a moral right to impose an extra tax on my V4 Toyota! But they did that before, and we weren't so furious. Once, they banned CFC's from our fridges and sprays - and we were proud to follow the green path. Then they put taxes and caps on car-emissions, and we also accepted the EURO norms. When the good-old quicksilver thermometers and lamps were banned, we also did not riot. Is now the Edison bulb a step too far? My reasonable self would probably agree that we use too much electricity and simply waste much of the generated power. Whether banning bulbs will reduce the waste, I've not been convinced by the campaigning parties. We're just weeks before the Copenhagen summit, which was to make a significant turn towards "greening" of energy generation and use - sometimes by harsh means like emission limits and a murky limits-trading system. As it looks now, more debate is needed before any global solution is reached, and maybe there's no way it can be reached at all. The bulb debate is energizing people, because it touches every household in the Western world. Not so with education and communication of the problems that are to be solved by turning off the switch.
Tags: | bulb debate |
Unregistered User

September 18, 2009

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" When the good-old quicksilver thermometers and lamps were banned, we also did not riot. Is now the Edison bulb a step too far?"

How ironic that all the quicksilver from those thermometers--and much, much more--is now coming back into our households thanks to the Edison ban! Bravo, politicians, once again!
John  Hadjisky

September 19, 2009

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The energy consumption figures for CFLs may be a scam.

An Edison bulb is simplicity itself. Virtually all the power is consumed by the filament (the part that glows) so it doesn't matter if you measure filament efficiency using a fully assumbled light bulb, or just a stand-alone filament attacked to a lab apparatus.

CFLs are very different. In place of the filament, we have a glass tube. But the real complexity is in the base of the bulb, which contains a ballast or electrical transformer that is several steps more complex that even traditional fluorescent light ballasts.

With a CFL, it does matter very much if you test a fully assembled, customer-ready bulb, vs. testing just the tube using a laboratory-perfect power supply. A number of independant analysts report that the are unable to reproduce the manufactures efficiency claims during normal usage.


(use if you don't want to create your own NY Times ID)

Also, there's a lot that can go wrong in manufacturing, and in operation, of this ballast. There are a number of different failure modes in which the bulb will still function, but with much less efficiency. "Dirty" power (spikes and dips) during operation can cause the CFL to permanently lose efficiency, even after clean power is restored. Operating at a modestly higher temperature also decreases efficiency; operating at high temperature can cause catastrophic failure and significant risk of starting a fire.
Unregistered User

September 26, 2009

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Thank you for this - glad to find agreement with what I have written too.

As it happens, the light bulb ban makes no sense from any perspective -
including the energy and emission criteria put on it

A simple cheap safe bright broad spectrum easily small light banned,
with the main replacement being
complex expensive mercury-containing narrower spectrum and dim ( especially in small sizes).

Let's think a little about this:

Europeans (like Americans) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 8 to 9 times out of 10 (European Commission and light industry data 2007-8)
Banning what people want gives the supposed savings - no point in banning an impopular product!

If new LED lights - or improved CFLs etc - are good,
people will buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
If they are not good, people will not buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio valves/tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway.

The need to save energy?
Advice is good and welcome, but bans are another matter...
people -not politicians – pay for energy, its production, and how they wish to use it.
There is no energy shortage - on the contrary, more and more renewable sources are being developed -
and if there was an energy shortage, the price rise would lead to more demand for efficient products – no need to legislate for it.

Supposed savings don’t hold up anyway, for many reasons: with referenced research

About electricity bills:
If electricity use actually falls, the power companies have to put up prices to cover their overheads, maintenance costs, wage bills etc
(using less fuel doesn't compensate much in overall costs)
Of course, utility companies already do this, with low usage customers paying relatively more per units used.

Does a light bulb give out any gases?
Power stations might not either:
Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution.

Direct ways to deal with emissions,
with a focus on transport and electricity:

The Taxation alternative
A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use.
We are not talking about banning lead paint here.
This is simply a ban to reduce electricity consumption.

Even for those who remain pro-ban, taxation to reduce the consumption would be fairer and make more sense, also since governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.

A few euros/dollars tax that reduces the current sales (EU like the USA 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa)
raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice.
It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products.
When sufficent low emission electricity delivery is in place, the ban can be lifted

Taxation is itself unjustified, it is simply a better alternative for all concerned than bans.

Of course an EU ban is underway, but in phases, supposedly with reviews in a couple of years time...

Maybe the debate in USA and Canada will be affected by the issues being raised over here?


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