Long Live the Lightbulb

Big Government has made it better

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Raimund Koch / Getty Images

Energy saving light bulb.

Have you seen the ad with the funeral for the incandescent lightbulb? As a lone bagpiper plays a dirge in the snow, the actor best known as that no-nonsense lieutenant from The Wire explains in his stentorian baritone that it’s not a sad day, because Cree Inc.’s LED bulbs last 25 times as long and use 84% less energy. Then he places Edison’s creation in an itty-bitty coffin and buries it for good.

But it’s alive! Sort of. This month, Ohio-based Advanced Lighting Technologies is releasing the Vybrant 2x, a 21st century incandescent powered by nanotechnology. It lasts twice as long as an old-fashioned Edison bulb and uses 50% less energy. It’s also just one-fourth the price of a Cree LED. Meanwhile, the top lighting manufacturers are all selling even cheaper incandescents that are not as efficient as Vybrants—much less LEDs—but use 25% less juice than older bulbs.

This all might sound confusing, because when Republicans denounce President Obama’s tyrannical left-wing ways, they often cite his “ban” on incandescent lightbulbs. Wasn’t he consigning us to a green dystopia full of expensive, curlicued bulbs that leak mercury and won’t dim? Wasn’t the ban a classic example, as House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton put it, of Big Government substituting its own judgment for the market’s?

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In fact, there was never a ban on incandescent lightbulbs. There is a 2007 law—signed by President Bush—that requires all lightbulbs to meet gradually increasing energy-efficiency standards. As one of its sponsors noted, the law would “help preserve energy resources and reduce harmful emissions, all while saving American families billions of dollars on their electric bills.” Yep, that sponsor was Fred Upton. He later led a Tea Party–fueled effort to stop Obama from enforcing the new standards, but the lighting industry is already meeting them anyway.

As Upton predicted in his greener days, the rules inspired a flurry of made-in-America innovation, creating high-tech jobs while giving U.S. consumers real choices for the first time. LED prices are plunging: North Carolina–based Cree’s 60-watt equivalent, which uses just 9.5 watts, costs $12.97 at Home Depot, down from $70 a few years ago. It pays for itself in electricity savings in two years—and can last decades longer. Those pigtailed compact fluorescent lamps are also improving: Osram’s new CFLs are twice as efficient as earlier models, providing better light with less mercury. Incandescents need to keep getting better too. By 2020, all bulbs must be 60% more efficient than Edison’s, which should save Americans $13 billion a year while eliminating the need for 30 dirty power plants.

“The race is on,” says Steve Stockdale, an executive at Advanced Lighting Technologies. “The market will decide the winners.” Energy-efficiency standards are not Big Government run amok; they’re Big Government at its best, advancing national priorities but letting the private sector figure out how.

So ignore the hysterics about government bulb grabbers. Regulation can shake up an uncompetitive status quo. Lighting, after all, hadn’t changed much since Edison’s flash of genius in 1879. “Think about that with your 2013 brain,” the Wire guy says in another Cree ad. “Nostalgia is dumb.”

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