Breaking light bulb myths

Share Button

Elisa Wood
By Elisa Wood
March 16, 2011

I have to agree with the Tea Party; the US government should not choose the light bulbs I use in my home.  And fortunately, it does not.

Yet that’s the spin being pushed by those who want to roll back federal lighting performance standards. An odd mythology is developing around the standards.

Opponents claim that the standards amount to government picking and choosing winners and forcing them upon us. More specifically, they say that the feds have banned the incandescent light bulb, which has been around since Thomas Edison’s time.

This is not true; the incandescent light bulb is not being banned; the standards are agnostic about technology type as long as they perform as required. The 2007 law is meant to act as a market mechanism that encourages innovation. With a benchmark to work towards, scientists, engineers and product designers are working to displace older, inefficient devices.  Already several different kind of light bulbs have made their way into the marketplace, including a new and better incandescent.

We have efficiency standards not only for light bulbs, but also for refrigerators, water heaters, air conditioners, microwaves and other appliances. They are nothing new.  Those who see them as government intrusion may be surprised to find that the first US appliance standards were set under Ronald Reagan.

Still one might ask, do we really need appliance standards? Are they worth the bother? That’s a $300 billion question – the amount the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimates the US will save on electricity costs by 2030 through existing appliance and lighting standards.

Here are other important points about appliance standards made by Steven Nadel, ACEEE’s executive director, in a testimony on March 10 before the US Senate’s Energy and Natural Resource Committee. Nadel urged that Congress reject S. 395, the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act (BULB), which would repeal lighting standards set in 2007 under the Bush administration.

  • Appliance standards generated 340,000 net jobs in the U.S. in 2010.
  • The majority of the standards are based on consensus agreements between manufacturers and energy efficiency advocates.
  • Four types of bulbs already meet the standards, although the standards do not take effect until 2012. Two are incandescent bulbs.
  • The 2007 lighting standards, alone, are expected to reduce annual electricity use by 72 billion kWh by 2020, enough to serve the annual electricity needs of 6.6 million average households and avoid construction of about 30 power plants.
  • ACEEE forecasts that the lighting standards will reduce consumer energy bills by more than $7 billion by 2020, or about $50 per American household annually.
  • A recent USA Today survey of 1,016 adults found that despite misinformation circulated about a light bulb ban, 61% of Americans favor the 2007 lighting standards, while 31% say they are  bad.

Share Button

About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. I see a comparision in banning incandescent bulbs and banning the use of leaded gasoline –sometimes actions need to happen.
    Those who would complain about governance on commodites like
    leaded gas or innefficient lights are acting in a solquescicious manner.
    I wonder if these folks have a problem with local building codes being
    enforced- after all its ” goverment mandating things that will add to the
    costs” – do these same (don’t ban my incan) people find restrictions
    on pourous gas lines, or other unsafe things an IMPOSITION?

  2. I don’t doubt your basic premise, but I am struggling to find the original source for any official Tea Party statement that attacks the concept of compact fluoresecent lightbulbs. Can you point to it?

  3. Gregory E says:

    Thank you for this post. Too many people don’t get it that standards are not imposed from above, but are created by consensus and agreement among a broad spectrum of stakeholders. And it absolutely drives me insane the rhetoric about mercury…like people think CFLs are time bombs in their homes waiting to go off. Nevermind the fact that the fluorescent tubes that we’ve been using for decades without anybody making much of a peep. But as soon as there is a political agenda, suddenly lighting standards are going to destroy us. Glad to have blogs like this one spreading the facts.

  4. Elisa:

    Thanks for shedding light (pun intended) on a subject that has spawned significant misinformation. Appliance standards have been a very successful method employed over the years to nudge manufacturers to improve efficiency. The alternative is often utility incentive programs that pay consumers for buying “higher than standard” efficiency products that they should buy anyway and are cost-effective in the long run, but need a nudge, as well. What works for other appliances can work for lighting, as well. CFLs are barely more expensive than iincandescent now so the first cost hurdle is no longer a problem, yet the adoption of CFLs is still low, so we need to provide another nudge! Better standards are a bright idea!

  5. Tony Woicekowski says:

    Nice work in exposing they myth behind the mis-information machine. The same crowd criticizing efficiency standards sees nuclear as an option to move forward. Funny how easy it is for some to decide what are “acceptable risks” , and the role of government support in one area (nuclear) vs another (efficiency).

  6. Lighthouse says:

    Certainly we can all strive for energy efficiency:
    But this one keeps coming up,
    the notion that
    “This is not a ban, energy efficient incandescents like Halogens allowed!”

    Sure it is a ban
    – any bulb not meeting allowable standards is banned.

    Yes, energy efficient halogen incandescent replacements are allowed, but
    still have light type etc differences with regular bulbs, apart from
    costing much more for the small savings, which is why neither
    consumers or governments really like them, since they have been around
    for a while now without being sold much.

    LEDs are not yet ready as bright omnidirectional lighting at a good
    price – which leaves CFLs:

    How manufacturers and vested interests have pushed for this ban,
    and lobbied for CFL favors:
    with documentation and copies of official communications

    All light bulbs have their advantages in different rooms and
    situations – none should be banned
    unless they are unsafe to actually use:
    The “switch all your lights and save lots of money” campaigns are like
    saying “Eat only bananas and save lots of money!”

  7. Lighthouse says:

    Some further points:
    A Nielsen poll had the opposite result.
    In fairness it depends on how the question asked of course.

    The whole relevancy here is of course of WHY people SHOULD be told
    what they can buy

    1 The society savings aren’t there as laid out clearly on the mentioned website
    USA overall energy savings less than 1% using DOE figures (remember: their big lighting percentage includes industrial, street etc non-incandescent lighting)

    2. Even if the savings were there:
    People pay for the electricity they use, of which there is no shortage justifying restrictions – and even less foreseeable future shortage, given the development of a lot of renewable low emission sources etc

    3. Even if the savings were there:
    There are better ways to save energy, in power plant delivery, grids, etc
    – competition, rather then regulation, between suppliers as between
    light bulb manufacturers guarantees energy efficiency in their energy
    — and indeed forces manufacturers to supply people with what they
    want, which includes
    bulbs that can save them money.

    “Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run”?
    Energizer bunny etc commercials show how such products can
    imaginatively be sold.
    Manufacturers should get off their backsides and
    market their products “If they are so great”as ban proponents say
    rather than push for bans on cheap alternatives, to make easy big profits

    4. Even if the savings were there:
    Other better ways to save energy are to reduce actual waste, whether
    in the generation, distribution or consumption of electricity,
    eg with lights, how they are left on commercially etc,
    and to target relevant greater usage
    eg freezer types, and other heavy energy using products in relevant households

    5. Even if the savings were there:
    Taxation would be more relevant even for ban proponents (tax is wrong
    – just better than regulation eg for liberal bankrupt California:)
    2 billion US and EU sales of relevant bulbs show massive government income potential, and can lower tax/subsidize greener bulbs, pay for home insulation measures etc, overall lowering society energy use more than the remaining taxed bulbs supposedly raises it, while retaining
    consumer choice
    As said tax is wrong, but better than banning useful products.

    Do bans on bulbs matter?
    Some ridicule it,
    but people spend half their lives under artificial lights, and they
    should have a free choice.

    More importantly,
    it matters because of the underlying ideology, which is how an efficient yet creative and free society is developed (Edison would
    have been stopped from this invention), better
    furthered, in my view, with market competition rather than regulation,
    when it comes to the use of safe products: We are not talking about
    banning lead paint here…
    (and yes it is a ban – see previous comment)

    “Obsolescent technology” is safe and known technology, compared to new complex alternatives:

    Yes, we should welcome the New: But it does not necessitate banning the Old.

    • Wow, did you miss this part of Elissa’s article: ”…This is not true; the incandescent light bulb is not being banned; the standards are agnostic about technology type as long as they perform as required. ”
      There is no ban, just an agreement between concerned and involved people to lower Americas energy costs.
      And yes there is a saving!

  8. Interesting conversation – in Australia we have banned the incandescent globe and my company (and others like mine) have teams of people installing CFL equivalents. We have installed several hundred thousand and have rarely had any complaints about dullness or the change in shape. Once people are used to them they enjoy the fact that they last several times as long and use only 20% of the energy. Oh, by the way, are the Tea Party really a bunch of right wing nutters they have been portryed as in the media over here?

    • TheReaperD says:

      From someone in California, yes the Tea Party is a collection of right wing nutters, anti-environmental corporation heads (the Koch brothers in particular) and scared old white men.

    • What utter rubbish, the CFL give out very poor light, we now have to have two in the room to get the same amount of usable light. They fail very quickly some in as little as 6 months, we have also had a couple burst into flames (never had an incandescent do that). They also cause issues with moving equipment ie spinning sewing machine parts which look like they are stationary. Halogen lights while giving out better light we have also had a number of them explode. As far as saving energy, I could not even pick on the electricity bill any difference.

  9. Nadia Spisakova says:

    Mostly, a new technology costs more (CFLs cost more than the old bulb, piece to piece comparison, at the register I pay more for one bulb). If it is a technology that every household needs and the cheap alterative is gone, then on average the houshold must find the extra funds somewhere. Independently on whether Tea party is a collection of right wing …., there has been this phase at present where the new bulbs are still more expensive and some of them fail. (The same is with LED technology.) On their own, the household would prefer not to pay upfront more money in exchange for uncertain benefit of several lifetimes of old bulb or large environmental savings by 2030. I can understand this and that is why it is not possible to rely on the household to make the right long-term decision that benefits all the people of the planet. The prices of the new bulbs are dropping, but for many ordinary people it still is meaningfully more expensive.

  10. Yes! Finally something about lawyer vs cop.

  11. Not just efficiency standards, we need energy from renewable sources. Energy-efficient appliances won’t help much if the source of the power is not green.

  12. Victorian state in Australia has cut down 40.6 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon emissions through energy efficiency programs.