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The Battle of the Bulbs

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The Battle of the Bulbs has come to Boston!

Last week, the once-proud Boston Globe reached a new low with a shoddily researched, unintentionally hilarious hit job on the new federal lighting efficiency standards. Not to rehash too much, but the story’s lead paragraph, which could have been ripped straight from today’s Onion, read as follows:

“Robin O’Neill wants to leave the earth a healthy place for her three children. But what good is a thriving planet, the North Andover mother asks, if her kids are forced to live in a home lighted by bulbs that are energy efficient but ruin the look of the dining room chandelier, or take forever to get bright?”

What good, indeed?!

Seriously, though, the kerfuffle over new federal lighting efficiency standards virtually defines the term “tempest in a teapot.” A USA Today poll taken back in February found that Americans support the law by a two-to-one margin. And the best evidence that the Globe’s reporter could turn up to illustrate consumers’ hoarding of traditional incandescents is a Home Depot official who reported that sales of incandescents are up this year by 10 to 20 percent. Which sounds like a lot until one realizes that sales of incandescent have been waning for years.

Still, the recent light bulb circus – which included a failed Congressional attempt to repeal the new standard – is a perfect case study in the benefits and trade-offs of environmental regulation, one that provides a teachable moment for environmentalists.

On the facts of the matter, the new lighting efficiency standards are as close to a no-brainer as you can possibly get. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the standards, once fully implemented, will eliminate 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year (more than is emitted annually by Austria or the Czech Republic), avoid the need for 30 power plants, and save consumers roughly $10 billion per year on energy bills. There is no single public policy that I am aware of that delivers equivalent environmental benefits along with major economic savings.

Many of the complaints about the standards, however, have nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis, but rather revolve around issues of individual liberty. Where, some ask, does government get off telling me what kinds of light bulbs I can have in my home? Or, given the advantages of efficient lighting, why can’t we just wait for the free market to do the job?

These are core questions about the role of government. Indeed, they are legitimate questions that deserve a thoughtful response. So, here’s my take:

First, the purpose of energy efficiency standards is not to ban a particular technology, but to act as a spur to innovation. And that’s exactly what’s happening in the lighting industry as a result of the current federal standards. One industry observer, quoted in the New York Times back in 2009, said that “[t]here have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years [since enactment of the federal standards] than in the last two decades.” Those innovations – which include the development of incandescent light bulbs that meet the new energy efficiency standards – would not have come nearly as quickly without a strong federal efficiency standard looming over the industry’s head.  

In other words, government set the standard and companies competed in the free market to see who could meet the standard while delivering the greatest benefit for consumers. Time and again – from refrigerators to cars – government has used technology-forcing standards to get engineers to put their noses to the grindstone. And, time and again, they have risen to the challenge.

Second, living in a society requires a constant balancing act between individual liberty and responsibility to the community. The use of inefficient light bulbs harms me in multiple ways – it unnecessarily increases demand for electricity that pollutes my air, increases my electricity rates (to pay for the new power plants and transmission lines required to bring power to my house), and increases the chances that my kids will live in a world profoundly changed by global warming. By comparison, the personal sacrifice involved in transitioning away from incandescents – a transition that I and millions of Americans have already made without apparent calamity – appears minor. 

People can legitimately disagree about whether lighting efficiency standards are a proper sphere for government action. That’s why we have differing political parties with differing philosophies of government that duke it out at the ballot box for the right to set public policy. And people certainly have the right to complain about the government – if that’s not in the Constitution, it darned well should be!

But with fossil fuel dependence, air pollution, utility costs and global warming continuing to represent pressing concerns for millions of Americans, we don’t have the luxury of looking askance at policies that make sense for the environment and the economy. Lighting efficiency standards remain a very bright idea whose time has come.