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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dim BULB bill fails

His master's voice is now digitized.
Light bulb efficiency standards are still on track to go into effect in January, despite Republican efforts to stand in the way of progress.

In 1879, Thomas Edison developed a system for creating artificial light by heating metal wires until they glowed. We call them light bulbs, but they should be called heat bulbs given that the majority of the energy they give off is in the form of heat (90%) rather than light (10%). I'm sure Edison didn't want his light bulb to be so inefficient, but that was the best he could do at the time. Over 100 years later, you'd think we'd have improved on this technology, and yet today's heat bulb is virtually identical to the one Edison invented.

Twenty years or so ago, I started getting telemarketing calls from a disabled veterans group asking me to purchase light bulbs that they promised would keep working for 5 years. I was skeptical, but I wanted to help, so I ordered some. They were quite expensive—as I recall, about the cost of one of those compact fluorescent bulbs the Tea Partiers are all up in arms that the government is now "mandating"—so I only ordered a few. But I was so happy with them that I continued to order more every time they called me, until every bulb in my apartment had been replaced.

Except then I didn't need to order any more of them, because they kept on working. I still have one or two of them in seldom-used lamps. Which of course is why the bulbs were never mass-marketed by a national company: Once you've bought enough of them to fill all your fixtures, you don't need to keep buying them. These, by the way, were regular old incandescent bulbs, nothing more exotic than that.
Soon, kids will find this artifact as puzzling as a rotary telephone.
(image: KMJ, alpha masking by Edokter)

But finally, in 2007, concerns about energy efficiency outweighed the interests of the light bulb manufacturers in selling more bulbs, and Congress passed energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs that are due to go into effect starting in January 2012. This bill was signed by Republican President George W. Bush. Now, these eminently reasonable efficiency standards that formerly had support from both parties have been seized upon by the far right, which characterizes them as a "ban" on incandescent bulbs (not true; incandescents can still be sold as long as they meet the efficiency standards) and a flagrant example of government overreach and intrusion into people's private consumer decisions. Though somehow, the rallying cry of "Let me burn inefficient light bulbs if I want to!" just doesn't have quite the same ring as "Give me liberty or give me death."

House Republicans, egged on by their Tea Party wing, actually made repealing the "ban" a 2010 campaign issue, and as soon as they regained the majority, they started agitating over it. The republic of Texas is even threatening to secede if they can't have their incandescent bulbs. OK, not really, but they're trying to "opt out" of the new standards using the argument that if incandescent bulbs are manufactured in Texas for Texans and never cross state lines, they're exempt from federal regulation of interstate commerce.

Now, fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed. On Tuesday, House Republicans fell short of the two-thirds majority required to expedite repeal of the efficiency standards, known as the Better Use of Our Light Bulbs, or BULB, Act. GOP leadership in the House may still try to pass the repeal under rules that require only a simple majority, but even if they succeed, it's unlikely that the bill would pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The Betamax lost out to the videocassette, which then lost out to DVDs,
which are fast on the way out thanks to streaming services.

So at long last, it's time to kiss the old heat bulb goodbye. Personally, I think 132 years is a pretty good run for a consumer product. At the risk of giving away my age, I could easily list a dozen devices that were in common use when I was a child that now exist only in museums, starting with another invention of Edison's, the phonograph. Audiophiles were not able to stand in the way of progress when digital audio reproduction technology came along, and the Republicans are on the wrong side of history regarding the heat bulb. Anyone want to bring back the Betamax? Didn't think so. Here's to the new efficiency standards! And to cleaner air!

Author: Linda Felaco