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Saving Energy by Abandoning Thomas Edison

The federal government is about to turn a page in the nation’s quest for energy efficiency by doing away with the light bulb that Thomas Edison patented 131 years ago.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that all light bulbs manufactured for sale in the United States be at least 25 percent more energy efficient beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

The Energy Independence and Security Act essentially ends the dominance of the incandescent light bulb in American homes and will phase out Edison’s invention over the following two years in favor of a trio of energy-efficient alternatives, including compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, halogen bulbs, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

By 2014, one of the most significant inventions in American history — if not world history — will no longer be available on store shelves, and will be relegated to bygone times as a memory, like the telegraph and the typewriter.

Saving energy is the goal of the new federal law, and if some estimates are right, then CFL bulbs could go a long way toward saving energy and saving money. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR website, CFL bulbs use 75 percent less energy than a standard incandescent bulb, while lasting 10 times longer.

Using these figures, the EPA estimates that if just one incandescent bulb were replaced with a CFL bulb in every home in the United States, the country could save enough energy to light 2.5 million homes a year and cut the production of greenhouse gasses equivalent to taking 800,000 cars off the streets.

CFL Bulbs Might Not Be the Best Energy-Efficient Option

However, the transition to energy-efficient light bulbs, especially CFL bulbs, may not be as simple or as beneficial as advocates of saving energy might like.

California recently concluded research as part of a two-year statewide energy efficiency pilot program conducted from 2006–08 that found energy savings related to CFL bulbs were 73 percent less than expected, and that the CFL bulbs burned out about three years earlier than expected.

Additionally, the coming de facto ban on incandescent blubs is getting political pushback from critics like Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas who has introduced legislation that would repeal portions of the Energy Independence and Security Act, including those having to do with the transition from incandescent to CFL bulbs.

Barton admits that CFL bulbs are energy efficient, but he cites the higher cost of the bulbs and health concerns about the mercury that the bulbs contain as major obstacles to widespread adoption.

Mercury is what makes both the older tube-based CFL bulbs and the newer compact CFL bulbs work, but the chemical has been linked to developmental problems in children who are exposed to even tiny amounts. And CFL bulbs have been known to shatter.

The concern over broken CFL bulbs is no insignificant matter. The EPA offers strict guidelines for cleaning up broken CFL bulbs, including avoiding possible vapors by immediately ventilating the room, avoiding vacuum cleaners, shutting off central air to prevent vapors from spreading to other areas of the home, and throwing away any fabric that comes into contact with the mercury.

Other issues concerning CFL bulbs include disposal and recycling of used bulbs, as well as consumer complaints about brightness issues and shorter lifespans in humid conditions such as bathrooms.

LEDs Could Be the Future of Lighting

While halogen bulbs could be a better option than CFL bulbs — they deliver more energy savings — halogen bulbs get extremely hot, which isn’t necessarily such a good thing when it comes to safety and comfort.

The third energy-saving alternative to incandescent bulbs, LEDs, might eventually be the best all-around choice, but probably not for a while.

Compared to CFL bulbs, LEDs last longer, are more resilient, produce less heat, work better in humid and extreme conditions, and contain no mercury. However, the technology is expensive and producing sufficient lighting from LEDs is a problem.

Although all three of the energy-efficient alternatives to incandescent bulbs save energy, none of them are particularly ideal when it comes to safety or performance. But unless Barton and others are able to repeal federal law, the official end of the incandescent bulb will come Jan. 1, 2014.


“Thomas Edison’s Bulb Set to Disappear by Next Year,” Anderson Independent Mail, Jan. 17, 2011.

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