Light-bulb ban has voters incandescent with rage

Canadians will obey a host of environmental regulations, but an apparently innocuous light-bulb policy may be going too far

Light-bulb ban has voters incandescent with rage

Reuters/Chris Wattie

It may be the universal symbol for a bright idea, but a great deal of political attention has been paid to the light bulb of late, with results that seem rather dim. Governments are finally realizing there’s more to environmental policy than simply passing a few laws and demanding that everyone obey. The public must believe in these moves as well.

In 2007, both the U.S. and Canada announced new energy efficiency standards for the sale of light bulbs that had the effect of banning traditional incandescent bulbs. In Canada, 100-watt and 75-watt varieties were to be removed from shelves starting January 2012. By January 2013, the familiar 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs would also be forbidden.

At the time, these new regulations were seen by both the Stephen Harper and George W. Bush governments as a way of proving their green credentials with little cost to the public purse. Incandescent bulbs were considered ancient technology, hardly changed since Thomas Edison’s brainstorm of 1879; newer technology promised far greater energy efficiency. All that was required was to take away people’s old bulbs.

It hasn’t been that simple.

In the U.S., the prospect of a light-bulb ban has become a major prop for Tea Party activists eager to prove Washington is overly intrusive and meddlesome. Republicans in Congress are fighting to repeal the light-bulb ban. Texas has already passed such a law. And many Americans are stockpiling the proposed contraband as an act of defiance.

In Canada, the Harper government appears to have anticipated a similar populist outburst by quietly announcing its intention to delay implementation of its ban until 2014. (British Columbia has its own regulations that currently outlaw the sale or importation of traditional 100-watt and 75-watt incandescent bulbs.) Ottawa says it needs more time to address “communication activities.” In other words, it seems the public isn’t quite ready to give up its familiar old light bulbs.

While Canadians have compliantly obeyed or tacitly supported a wide variety of imposed environmental policies, ranging from messy garbage sorting to massive subsidies for solar and wind power, an apparently innocuous light-bulb policy is experiencing significant push-back. What are the lessons for government and environmental groups?

First, the laws were unveiled without significant consultation or public buy-in. It was rule by diktat and objectionable on those grounds alone.

Second, the available replacements—compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs—are demonstrably inferior in terms of performance and cost. As everyone knows, CFL bulbs are more expensive and give off a harsh glow in sharp contrast to the familiar warmth (and low cost) of incandescent bulbs. For most Canadians the light-bulb ban promised a noticeable reduction in perceived living standard.

Third, the claimed environmental benefits of reduced energy consumption were negated by the presence of mercury in CFLs. Given the hysteria regarding minute quantities of mercury or other toxins in many other everyday household products, it seems ludicrous for a government to mandate mercury in light bulbs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides a three-page set of directions on what to do if you break a CFL bulb, including shutting off the furnace or air conditioner to prevent the spread of deadly mercury vapour through the house. The net environmental benefits of the change are thus obscure, and not worth the reduction in living standards.

Environmental groups, such as Canada’s Pembina Institute, have objected to Ottawa’s postponement, claiming “a delay will do more harm than good.” However, this light-bulb episode may mark a turning point in green policy. It appears there are some things the public will simply not accept, even in the name of environmentalism. Taking away familiar, useful and inexpensive products without providing a suitable replacement is one of those things.

Rather than relying on government fiat to reduce energy consumption, there are other ways to achieve green gains. Buried within the 2007 regulations of the U.S. law is the intriguing Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, in which Washington has offered $15 million in prize money and the prospect of massive government contracts to the first commercial bulb of any technology that meets tough new standards for lighting capabilities and energy consumption.

If the winning L-Prize bulbs deliver both performance and savings, there will be no need to regulate the sale of old-style light bulbs. Consumer self-interest will accomplish what government decree could not.

Sometimes a carrot works better than a stick. And a prize works better than a ban. How’s that for a bright idea?


Light-bulb ban has voters incandescent with rage

  1. Some of the problems with CFL bulbs have been discussed, like high cost, mercury, unsuitable light, etc. Also, they have a propensity of catch fire, as was reported on CBC Market Place. And, they do not work with dimmer switches.

    LEDs are said to solve a lot of these problems, but they are exorbitantly costly, as around $50 per bulb. They are said to last exceptionally long. Can we be sure that we will live long enough to realize the savings, after having paid such a high price? Considering that one would require a few dozen bulbs for an entire home, it is not inconceivable that replacement could eat up an entire pay cheque.

    Are incandescents really that bad? Many people use them on dimmer
    switches, so they are not always used at full power. Also, I read on a
    science site a few months back that the heat generated actually helps
    heat the home, hence, according to the article, it is a myth to suggest
    that heat generated is a disadvantage.

    A new type of bulb has to have certain characteristics: it must have a pleasant colour temperature, similar to incandescent, or even more pleasing and easy on the eyes; it must be very economical to purchase; it must be long-lasting; it must not be obsoleted for decades to come; it must fit all of our existing sockets, lamps and dimmer switches; it must not contain harmful chemicals like mercury or any other; etc.

  2. Often unmentioned in the curlique lightbulb discussion is the fact that in some people, me for example, fluourescent light can be a migraine trigger and/or exacebator.  Yes, I have stocked up and have a cupboard full of various wattages, a rather large investment but insufficient for an average remaining lifespan.  I do hope a clever entrepreneur creates an alternative in the near future — would be a productive use of my penion money :) 

  3. This comment was deleted.

    • Note: Canada does not have states.

      • thanks Guest – I changed it and replied thanking you,
        but can’t see it now

  4. (continued)

    Main Course……

    There is no free lunch with regulations, in that energy saving mandates change car, building, washing machine, light bulb etc characteristics  (and increase price),
    and there are much more rational and significant ways to save the energy used in electricity delivery than to ban the end-product safe use of choice, by paying consumers

    Bulbs are not being banned for being unsafe to use, but simply to reduce the
    energy used in generating electricity.

    Not only is there less than 1% energy use and only c. 2% grid electricity saved by lighting regulations – on DOE, Canada, EU official statistics – but there are much more significant generation,  grid distribution and consumption waste reducing ways to achieve savings, if required

    Even if disagreeing with that,
    if bulbs must be targeted:

    according to Right-wing  or Left-wing Ideology, the alternatives,  Market
    Competition  and Tax respectively, are both better than regulations…

     Market Competition rather than Regulation,
    gives not only reduced energy use by say competing utilities keeping down energy cost in generation and
    it also gives desirable energy saving products, which people have
    always bought, and which could be marketed properly (compare with Energizer
    bunny etc commercials “Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run”)
    New start-ups including of energy saving lights can be supported temporarily- and, as you say, the L-Prize type initiatives can be there too.
    Let people actually want to buy the bulbs!

    2. Tax is not as good, but still better than bans, for all sides.
    Federal Canada, or individual states,
    could Tax not Ban popular but energy using Cars, Buildings, White Goods, TV sets, Light Bulbs etc
    Gives a big State/Fed Govmt income, can also help finance cheaper energy saving alternatives so people are not just “hit by taxes” (and they know that a ban is the alternative).
    People keep Choice, Govmt  get Funding, tax easily adjusted according to new market conditions and entrants – a politically fair proposal.
    Tax is still wrong in being similar to regulations, but better than regulations, also for currently pro-regulation Governments.

    So “Conservative or Liberal”, regulations are not the best
    choice for either…

    Tax/Competition alternatives to regulation

  5. (continued)

    “The Sweet Dessert”

    There are many reasons why a ban is particularly wrong for CANADA

    Smaller energy savings, no energy shortage, low emissions, cold conditions, more time indoors in varied surroundings with greater flexibility requirement of the lighting used,  and so on, as described and referenced where appropriate.

    Indeed, CO2 and other emissions can actually go up, as researched, from a heat replacement effect where “clean source electricity” heating as a bi-product of incandescent lighting,  is substituted with “dirty ” heating sources…

  6. Banning the Incandscent Bulb in Canada is a BAD IDEA!    Cancel the upcoming ban on them and give customers a choice.   The CFL bulbs give off crappy light.   And like another person has said in another post.  LED bulbs are way too expensive.   Also there are people with health issues such as seizures that cannot use the CFL Bulbs.  So scrap the idea on banning the Incandescent Light bulbs and let each person have a choice of what lighting product they choose to buy and use.  And not let the government ban them.

  7. I guess you know the delay was made official the other day
    More on that with official links
    Freedom Light Bulb Blog
    including how BC Conservatives under John Cummins are now promising to overturn the BC ban!

  8. Regulations from the Gov’t. is getting a bit too much. I wonder whose Gov’t friend is selling them?
    I used to find the key hole in my front door when I came home. The street light across the street provided me with more then ampel light. Today I spent much time trying to get in my door. The new lights give off almost nil light…….

  9. I have two comments to make. First, contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb. Incandescent lighting was actually invented by Joseph Swan and a few others and had been used to light the streets of Newcastle, England for more than a decade before Edison claimed to have invented it. Swan successfully sued Edison for patent infringement. A settlement was reached and Edison later bought the patent and made some improvements to the existing technology.

    My second comment is in regards to fluorescent lighting. At one time I was a great supporter of it and I systematically began to replace my incandescents with CFLs. But then I noticed that the CFLs were burning out more quickly than the old incandescents. Apparently the claims of greater longevity are only true if you leave fluorescent lights on a minimum of five hours each time. If you switch them on and off they die fast. Not much of a saving for those of us who turn the light off when we leave a room. And then of course there are those wierd colours some of my shirts take on under fluorescent lighting… Nice and bright white under incandescent but lo and behold, dirty yellow when a CFL bulb is installed! And never mind the unnatural colour I’ve seen some dairy products take on! Do I really want that going on under my roof? No thanks! The government can ban the sale of incandescent lamps all they want. I have already ditched the energy saving lights and have enough incandescent and halogen bulbs in my attic to last more than 50 years.If you really want to save the planet (and I certainly do) then use the light switch.

  10. I use fluorescents by choice. The reason is simple: I HATE YELLOW LIGHT. I want my home lit by daylight-coloured light. I don’t want to be bathed in souped up candle light. The more efficient light, the better.


  12. Again, and again money talks against rationality.

    How much time does need for people have to educate themselves more before getting into trouble?
    “The answer my friend is blowin in the wind”:

  13. LED possini lighting is what I have in all my home furnishings and offices. It not only looks great, but is energy efficient, and saves me money on my power bill each month! LED is way better than CFL’s.