The light bulb debate reared its head again on July 12, when the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act (H.R. 2417), proposed by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, went before the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure sought to block the new, higher-efficiency standards for light bulbs (lamps, in lighting parlance) outlined in the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. BULB failed to pass.

The debate is no longer about light. Politicians are manipulating the issue for political benefit, an alarming fact that speaks to the larger communications breakdown in civil discourse. Healthy difference of opinion is one thing, but politicians who are attempting to reverse EISA are misleading the American public.

Some politicians believe that the new lamp standards are an infringement on personal rights and that they eliminate consumer choice. That's just wrong. Go to any home improvement store. Look in any lamp manufacturer's catalog. There is more choice than ever in how Americans can light their homes: existing incandescents, halogen incandescents, CFLs, the new generation of LED replacement lamps.

Here's how we arrived at this point. New Zealand, Australia, and Europe had already introduced standards for more energy-efficient lamps when EISA was passed in 2007 by a bipartisan vote of 314 to 100. The law set deadlines for the introduction of more efficient lamps between 2012 and 2014. New general service A-lamps will have to be 30 percent more efficient than present-day 100W lamps, meaning that 40W, 60W, and 100W lamps as they exist today will be phased out. The law does not ban incandescents, nor does it prohibit manufacturers from developing a more-energy-efficient incandescent.

Lighting is the low-hanging fruit in discussions about energy savings, and the new regulations will have a potentially huge economic impact. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the standards outlined in EISA will save consumers more than $12.5 billion by 2020. Setting a federal baseline for reducing energy use is a good thing.

    “The debate is no longer about light. Politicians are manipulating the issues for political benefit, an alarming fact that speaks to the larger communications breakdown in civil discourse. Healthy difference of opinion is one thing, but politicians who are attempting to reverse EISA are misleading the American public.”

But all hope for common sense on this issue is not lost. Concerned parties, including the Alliance to Save Energy, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the Illuminating Engineering Society, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), along with a number of major lighting manufacturers and retailers, have organized as the LUMEN (Lighting Understanding for a More Efficient Nation) Coalition. The group just launched a website—lumennow.org—to clarify the issues that surround this debate. The DOE website energysavers.gov is worth a serious look as well.
But politicians don't give up easily. On July 15, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, put through an amendment to a 2012 energy and water spending bill that prohibits government funding for consumer education about the new standards. Burgess's effort is pointless. Thanks to the sour economy, there never has been government funding for the consumer outreach mandated in EISA.

There is much more to say on this topic, such as why it's so upsetting when prominent lighting designers feed the fire by saying they are stockpiling light bulbs. (Please Mr. Brandston, a plea: Your comments, most recently in the June 3 New York Times Magazine, undermine years of hard work by the lighting industry and the lighting design community to advance the profession.) Yes, light sources as they exist today are changing, but it doesn't mean we have to loose sight of the benefits that come with these changes. Light bulbs are becoming more efficient, and that's a good thing.

I often wonder: What would Thomas Edison think about all of this? In a July 7 Huffington Post article, Edison's great-grandson David Edison Sloane writes, “My great-grandfather would be calling us to put politics aside and get back to doing what Americans do best—create better mousetraps … and better light-bulbs.” If Edison would have been up for the challenge, so should we.