In search of the ideal light bulb

A comparison of light given off by three 60 watt-equivalent bulbs.
A comparison of light given off by three 60 watt-equivalent bulbs. NYT

For all the high-level conversation about climate action, much progress, or lack of it, will turn on the lowly light bulb.

California officials have encouraged the public to install solar panels, buy energy-saving appliances, and drive hybrid and electric vehicles, all for the good. But for all the successes, authorities have not done a great job telling us which light bulbs to screw in.

They foisted compact fluorescent bulbs on the unsuspecting but ecologically earnest public during the energy crisis in 2000 and 2001. With rebates, they persuaded many of us that the oddly shaped bulbs were worth the extra cost because of energy savings.

So we have waited as they warmed up, tried to read in their dim light, and discovered that they didn’t respond to dimmer switches. And they never lasted as long as manufacturers promised. Worse, we found there is no convenient way to safely throw them away. Experts failed to tell us that they contain toxic mercury. Oops.

Now, the California Energy Commission is in the final stages of implementing 2007 legislation that compels a 50 percent reduction in residential energy consumption used by lights by 2018 by making LED bulbs the standard. The legislative staff analysis of the bill states the energy saving target “should be easy to meet.” We can only hope that’s right.

The commission predicts the new standards will save consumers $4.3 billion during the first 10 years. Power plant emissions of smog-causing nitrous oxides will decline by 6,500 tons, and climate-changing carbon dioxide by 10.3 million metric tons between 2017 and 2029.

For all their successes in energy conservation, state authorities have not done a great job telling us which light bulbs to screw in.

The energy commission also estimates that by meeting the standard, Californians would reduce electricity demand by 3,144 gigawatts per year, roughly equivalent to the power generated by a large plant.

It all sounds great, except that people who make light-emitting diode, or LED, bulbs say the standards will be exceedingly tough to meet by the 2017 deadline. Philips Lighting, General Electric and other manufacturers say they can make very good bulbs, but not the ideal bulbs, at least not at a price many consumers would accept.

Among the many issues, California bulbs would differ from bulbs sold in the rest of the country. It wouldn’t be the first time that California officials blaze their own path. And that is not necessarily bad.

Energy commission officials say the new standards are attainable and will add no more than 50 cents to the cost of an LED bulb. Few consumers will blink if that turns out to be true.

But in the pursuit of the perfect, the commission should be careful not to require bulbs that cost too much and are tough to find. Conservation shouldn’t be priced out of the market and it shouldn’t be a hassle. Commissioners need to understand there are alternatives. Energy-sucking incandescent bulbs are banned from store shelves in California. But on Amazon, a four-pack of old-style bulbs is a click away, for a mere $5.97, a fraction of the cost of existing LEDs.