Is it lights out for light bulbs?

January 12, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

One congressman's fight to replace incandescents with energy-saving alternatives is meeting with a little unexpected resistance.

By Andrew B. Lewis, contributor

Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is steamed about government intrusion. "Washington is making too many decisions," he said recently. Rush Limbaugh is fuming too: "These ... SOBs are trying to take over every aspect of our lives," he raged. So is it health care that has them riled up? Taxes? Nope. They're p.o.ed about light bulbs.

In 2007, Congress passed new bulb standards requiring at least a 25% increase in efficiency for 100-watt bulbs by 2012 and smaller-wattage bulbs by 2014, leading to the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) and halogen bulbs. Barton's bill, the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) act, was introduced in September. He wants to nullify the standards, which he claims cost U.S. jobs and are a safety hazard. The BULB act was not taken seriously until it became a key part of the struggle between Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a sponsor of the standards, to run the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton won, but he had to agree to revisit his own law. "We have heard the grass roots loud and clear," he says. Though the bill is likely to die in session, Limbaugh wants Congress to pass it as its first act in January.

You'd think CFLs would make a lot of people happy: General Electric (GE) says that replacing 200 million 100-watt bulbs saves the carbon equivalent of taking 1.4 million cars off the roads. Barton says that's overrated. And though he blames "Washington-mandated layoffs" for the closing of the last U.S. bulb factory, the real story is about price competition from China. While CFLs do contain a tiny bit of mercury, the EPA says a broken bulb isn't a health risk.

The irony is that sales of CFLs have fallen 31% since 2007, due to the recession, the longer life of the new bulbs, and the decision of Wal-Mart (WMT), which controls about 41% of the market, to stop aggressively promoting them. (When contacted, a Wal-Mart spokesman said the company had "nothing to contribute to this story.") Maybe Barton should simply rely on the good old free market.

41%: Wal-Mart's market share of CFL bulbs

90%: Amount of energy lost as heat in incandescent bulbs

$40: Money saved per CFL bulb by consumers over five years

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