Battle Of The Bulb

You remember the 50s. America was on its ascendancy. We all liked Ike. Gas was .20 cents a gallon. Ice cream grew on trees… Anything seemed possible.

Yesterday stands in stark contrast to today, where almost nothing seems possible to accomplish. Politicians are unwilling to work together on anything from the insurmountable (the debt ceiling) to the mundane – light bulbs. Yes, we’re now fighting over light bulbs. 

The Edison light bulb, that little changed holdover from the late industrial revolution, is set to be phased out by the federal government. On the surface it seems silly to fight over such a mundane item. It’s just a cheap little light bulb. Something everyone has. And therein lies the issue. Everyone can related to light bulbs. We all buy them. We all use them. We’ve all grown up with them. Light bulbs have been a constant in all of our lives. 

Incandescent bulbs do one thing particularly well. They produce a beautiful glow that we humans find appealing. On top of that, they are inexpensive. So, then, it should come as little surprise that there would be outrage at the government for banishing our beautiful bulbs. So why does the Department of Energy say must we part with our Tommy Edisons? Efficiency.

Traditional light bulbs are horribly inefficient. Approximately 90% of the power consumed by an incandescent light bulb is emitted as heat, rather than as visible light. They are far better heaters than they are light providers when it come to using energy. And since no one uses light bulbs to heat their homes one can surmise that they aren’t terribly efficient heaters either.  There must be already be an alternative bulb out there because we certainly could not go back to the dark ages.

Currently affordable alternatives like CFLs, compact fluorescent lights, are not the answer. While they use a fraction of the power that incandescents consume,  they are more costly, contain toxic mercury and produce light that is not particularly attractive and can give people headaches. Thankfully they are no longer seen as the replacement to the traditional bulb, merely an unfortunate stopgap until the true replacement arrives.

The future of light bulbs, the bulb that most Americans will be buying in five years, will be an LED bulb. LED, light emitting diode, based bulbs can last up to 50,000 hours; fifty times the lifespan of a regular bulb. Plus, they use a fraction of the electricity of the aforementioned CFLs. So what’s the catch? LEDs are a relatively new and evolving technology and, like all new technologies, they are expensive. The first LED bulbs cost between $80-$100. They weren’t particularly bright and the light they produced, while not as unappealing as CFL light, was not to similar to the familiar incandescent glow. However, technology evolves rapidly and the current crop of much improved LED bulbs are available at you local home improvement store for between $30$40. Later this year  Switch Lighting will release a $20 LED bulb with light: that looks exactly like what we’re used to.” With prices halving annually it will not be long before they become truly affordable. However, LED bulbs are still too new, too pricey and evolving to force upon the average consumer.

The government, staying true to form, has taken away something that people love and are accustomed to and offered up two alternatives; one nobody really likes and the other very few can afford. And to make matters worse, the man spearheading the bulb initiative, Energy Secretary Steven Chu added a little condescension to the mix saying: “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”

To be sure the loudest protestations have come from our Tea Party and other smaller government compatriots. They see this government mandate as a further example of government intrusion into the daily lives of Americans. Their understandable argument is “stop telling us what to do”. It is an idea that resonates with many. Government that governs less governs best.

We totally agree with our Tea Party brethren about liberty, but the incandescent bulb totally has to go. But it should be the free market, not government imperialism, which relegates the old bulb to history. While it was the marvel of its age, today its horrible inefficiency is appalling when compared to the advancement of other technologies born of the same era. We’ve progressed from the Model T to the Volt, the Wright Flyer to the 787, but for some reason we have not expected, nor demanded newer, better light bulbs. If a better more efficient and affordable technology existed, Americans would use it. It took no government mandates to get most Americans to willing give up their home phone lines, just better technology and fewer bills. Show us a bill and we’ll figure out a way to stop paying for it.