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Policy: Environment & Energy

Last chance to buy cheap incandescent light bulbs

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Energy Department,Ashe Schow,Analysis,Energy and Environment

Starting on Jan. 1, businesses will no longer be able to stock cheap incandescent light bulbs due to a 2007 law. Stores will be allowed to sell their remaining stock, but will not be able to order more after that.

The 2007 law mandated tough energy efficiency requirements for incandescent bulbs, which made them more difficult to produce because of compliance. This led many to believe the government was essentially “banning” the standard bulbs.

Incandescent bulbs are cheaper than the now-government-preferred compact fluorescent lamps. The old bulbs cost about 70 cents while the new ones cost a few dollars — or up to $20 for an LED bulb. However, that extra initial cost brings energy savings over the life of the bulb.

A CFL bulb will save $50 in energy costs over its lifetime (about 10 years) compared to the standard incandescent bulbs, and an LED bulb will save $100 to $150 in energy costs over its lifetime (about 25 years). By comparison, the incandescent bulbs last just one year.

“Once all of our nation's 4 billion screw-based sockets have an efficient bulb in them, U.S. consumers will save $13 billion and 30 large coal-burning power plants-worth of electricity a year,” said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The savings really add up.”

So the bulbs are clearly superior when it comes to energy costs, but does that give the government the right to tell Americans what they can and can’t buy?

By forcing the old bulbs out of the market, the government destroyed thousands of jobs. The new jobs created by CFL and LED lights are primarily in China.

There are some advanced incandescents for sale, which led the New York Times to write in 2009 that “the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.”

But those new incandescent bulbs are more expensive than the old ones – up to $5 a piece for a 30 percent more efficient bulb.

And don’t forget about the mercury in the newer bulbs. While not enough to pose a grave risk, there is still a specific procedure for cleaning up a broken bulb. And it’s probably best not to let children or pets around a broken bulb.

It's not just light bulbs that the government regulates for energy efficiency, either. From ceiling fans to water heaters, the government is involved in everything that makes American homes livable, making the up-front cost of products higher and making up for it by saving money on energy bills.

But prior to the 2007 law, energy usage per dollar of gross domestic product was already falling in the U.S., meaning products were becoming more energy efficient already. The government didn't need to step in.

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