Energy & Environment

Washington’s War on Edison’s Bulb Highlights Unintended Consequences

WASHINGTON, D.C.–With its traffic circles and tree-lined squares, America’s capital sometimes resembles a magical, otherworldly place. Maybe that’s why so many who govern here think that they can wave their legislative wands and unleash beauty free of costs and complications.

Of course, reality rarely cooperates.

Consider Washington’s still-unfolding ban on Thomas Alva Edisons incandescent light bulb. If left unchallenged, January 1 will herald stricter standards that Congress specifically designed in 2007 to electrocute Edisons invention and dragoon Americans into using more energy-efficient alternatives.

Courtesy of our federal masters, Americans are enduring a parade of unforeseen consequences as the experts try to extinguish this landmark contribution to humanity.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), which Washington hopes will replace incandescents, brighten slowly, function poorly with dimmer knobs, and emit a color of light that many find unappealing. Even worse, according to EnergyStar.gov, each CFL contains 4 milligrams of toxic mercury. An average CFL includes enough mercury to pollute 528 gallons of water, which would fill 10.5 typical, 50-gallon residential water heaters.

As the EPA warns, High exposures to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys.

Breaking a CFL triggers a significant health hazard that requires a 10-step clean-up. Among other things, EPA recommends opening a window or door to the outdoor environment. No problem unless you occupy an apartment, hotel room, or office with sealed windows.

Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off, as practical, for several hours, EPA counsels. This might upset residents of Phoenix, where temperatures hit 105 degrees Tuesday. Likewise, opening one’s windows in Minneapolis might be unappealing in January, when highs average 22 degrees.

Old CFLs should be disposed of properly at recycling centers. Dream on. Most consumers will toss them in the trash with their tea bags. Mercury will accumulate in Americas landfills, possibly with disastrous results.

As Washington has hammered incandescents, some have gravitated toward light-emitting diodes. While LEDs pose none of CFLs health risks, they present their own problems.

Shifting from Edison bulbs to LEDs can save cities and states money. Changing street lights to LEDs has shrunk Wisconsin’s power bill by $750,000 annually, the Associated Press Dinesh Ramde reported in December 2009.

Their great advantage is also their drawback, Ramde wrote. They do not waste energy by producing heat. This means that the snow and ice that normally melt on contact with a hot, Edison-style street light or traffic signal instead coat LED fixtures in layers of wintry precipitation. Street lights get whited out, a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death, Ramde explained.

In April 2009, Illinois officials say, motorist Lisa Richter began a left turn. Due to snow obstruction, an oncoming driver who could not see an LED-driven street light smashed into Richter, killing her at age 34.

While CFLs and LEDs supposedly save money in the long run, they cost much more up front. While Lowes.com charges 93 cents for a 100-watt incandescent bulb, equivalent CFLs are $4.49. Meanwhile, a 95-watt LED bulb runs a staggering $69.98. If Edison bulbs vanish, does Washington really expect mercury-shy consumers to pay nearly $70 for an LED version of the still-reliable 100-watt incandescent?

While employment tops Americas agenda, Washington’s war on the Edison bulb already has killed jobs. Last September, General Electric (a company founded by Edison) padlocked its last U.S. incandescent bulb factory. A variety of energy regulations will soon make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester [Virginia] Plant obsolete, GE announced last year. Thus, 200 Americans lost their jobs, which paid some $30 per hour. In October 2008, GE shuttered six Ohio incandescent plants, leaving 425 workers in the dark. Meanwhile, labor-intensive CFL production is thriving in China.

The Republican House may vote this month to repeal the Edison-bulb ban. Outstanding! This wicked law cannot be switched off soon enough.

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