by Jon Winsor
Conventional incandescent light bulbs are tremendously inefficient. Only about 10% of the energy used to power the light bulb actually goes to producing light, and the remaining 90% is emitted as heat. And it’s easy to see why. An incandescent bulb filament relies on the fact that it’s a poor conductor of electricity. It’s essentially the same concept used by inexpensive space heaters. So doubtless, the technology could be improved—the same way that many appliances have been improved by efficiency standards over the years.
At least that was the way Fred Upton (R – MI) was thinking when he helped craft a provision of the Energy Independence and Security Act (ESIA), which was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007—with support from manufacturers, who have since invested millions in retooling their factories. The provision didn’t choose “winners and losers” as far as light bulb technology goes. Incandescent bulbs were fine, as long as they met the standard. Under the law, as the Christian Science Monitor reported,
…general-purpose light bulbs must become about 30 percent more energy efficient. Different bulb classes face different deadlines, all between 2012 and 2014. The old Edison bulb gets killed on January 1, 2012. But more-efficient incandescent bulbs, which use only 72 watts to give the same output as an old 100-watt Edison bulb, will still be sold.
While Edison bulbs today are about 30-50 cents apiece, updated versions cost $1.50. But the latter pay for themselves in energy savings in about six months.
These bulbs also last about 50% longer, and households were expected to save $100 to $200 per year under the new standards. Not to mention the power plants that wouldn’t need to be built, the gains in US energy independence, and the gains in US jobs (the Guardian reports that presently no US factory manufactures the old 100 watt light bulbs).
Enter Rush Limbaugh.
According to a number of sources, the genesis of the controversy was one Joe Barton coveting a committee chairmanship of Fred Upton. Sensing the opportunity for a tea party-style groundswell that he might ride to a committee chairmanship, Joe Barton made an appeal to the uniquely unreasoning and dialog-free medium called talk radio–which promptly turned the light bulb into a pet cause.
Now there could be a reasonable argument that talk radio might have made—that up front costs are something that consumers should choose to pay. Maybe consumers want to keep their $1 per bulb up front, instead of their $100-200 savings. That’s at least reasonable, although it makes you stop and go hmmm…
But that kind of nuance isn’t what talk radio is about. Says Rush Limbaugh, “Unless there’s a policy reversal, next year the 100-watt incandescent light bulb will be banned… Let there be incandescent light and freedom. That’s the American way.” Saying “ban” is entirely misleading, but it’s too much talk radio gold to pass up. “They’re coming for your lightbulbs, America, and you’ll be forced to fill your house with those weird, screwy things.” Now that’s exciting radio, exciting in the way that a Grover’s Mill, NJ farmer got excited during a 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.
The campaign has been very effective. Upton defended his decision for a time, but eventually bowed to pressure and disowned his own bill (he even took down his 2009 defense of ESIA from his website). In the end, Upton managed to keep his seat. But the talk-radio based campaign gained momentum (with help from a CEI “grassroots” group), and eventually garnered 233 votes for their measure in the house, and then today finally got a procedural voice vote to block enforcement of Upton’s original provision.
An interesting question is, without talk radio’s misleading “stop the ban” campaign, would this effort have even come close to getting 233 votes? What does this do to our politics if every time a politician has a whim like Barton’s, they could just get Rush to do a few segments and work up the Republican base in whatever way is needed, no matter how capricious that need might be?