By now most people are aware of the laws passed back during the days when George W. Bush was president that basically said that light bulbs had to be more efficient than they were. The common misconception is that these laws required us to discontinue manufacture and use of the traditional incandescent light bulb.
Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 does not actually mention any requirements for or against any specific lighting technologies. It merely says that lights have to be 25% more efficient. Okay, to be fair, that does actually mean that incandescent lighting technology is going to be replaced with Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) and Light Emitting Diode (LED) technologies. Incandescent lighting technology has pretty much peaked and the 25% more efficiency mark with that line of technology would be hard to attain.
The theory is that if we all have 25% more efficient lighting, we can, as individuals, save 20% of the costs of lighting our homes. And then we have to ask, should the government be telling us how to spend and save money as individuals. The answer to that question seems like it should be an unequivocal, ‘No.’
It’s not that simple.
When the laws regulate technologies in this way, it promotes development of new technologies. This means jobs. Jobs are good. More people working means more people buying stuff and less people starving or using public assistance. This means more money for everyone and a lower need for taxes.
In forcing more efficient lighting, and lowering energy usage at the individual level, the government is actually lowering energy usage at the collective level or in other words, lowering the energy usage of the whole country. This keeps energy costs down and helps our energy infrastructure stay capable of providing enough electricity without having to build a gazillion more power plants, be they nuclear or fossil fuel. This means it’s a benefit to everyone. It, again, is helping promote the public good. Lower energy costs mean more money to spend on other consumer goods.
At a personal level it feels like Big Brother is telling us what to do. The truth is that in this case, the government is not encroaching on ground the it hasn’t already established as its demesne. Energy efficiency standards have been set by the government for decades.
CFLs and LEDs do save money simply in the costs of the light bulbs over the course of their lives. The energy savings of lumens to wattage are an added bonus that benefits everyone.
People also mention, regarding CFLs that proper disposal is required. This is over-hyped in most cases today. In the future it may be an issue as everyone adopts the technology and more CFLs enter the waste system. We may need to add a light bulb bin to the local recycling centers right next to the batteries bin. No one puts their old AA’s in the regular trash when they change out the remote batteries, do they? I mean everyone properly disposes of those old batteries by driving them to the recycling center, right?
Okay, so, in all honestly we fully expect most people to simply throw their old light bulbs away, putting the harmful materials that go into them out into the environment. Mercury is the element most mentioned in this discussion. Fact: over 5 years, the energy to light an incandescent light, if produced from coal, releases 10 milligrams of mercury into the environment. Over the same time period, the energy to light a CFL produces 2.4 milligrams of mercury. Add this to the 4mg of mercury in the CFL itself, and we can see that incandescent lighting is actually worse for the environment in terms of mercury release. Factor in that CFLs can be properly disposed of, something we’ve been doing for decades, and are using less mercury with each technological advance, and the argument leans even further in favor of CFLs. To be fair, we should factor in that only 45% of our power comes from coal. This fact pretty much neutralizes the mercury argument from both sides.
Most of the stats above are taken from GE’s fact sheet: http://www.gelighting.com/na/home_lighting/ask_us/downloads/MercuryInCFLs.pdf
To restate the primary question: Should government be muddling in personal home decor and personal finance decisions? Not unless there are repercussions that could affect the health and or wealth of the entire populace of the country, which in the case of lighting efficiency, there are.