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Bulb warnings are light on facts

The resistance to the socialist assault on free enterprise has a new mascot: the Edison lightbulb.

The government says they use too much energy.

According to some Republicans, liberals are soon going to make you buy expensive new alternatives to the incandescent bulbs, like those weird curly-cue compact fluorescent bulbs, or worse yet, LED bulbs that go for $50 apiece.

"Enough!" says a fundraising letter making the rounds from a conservative political action committee that draws a political line in the sand over lightbulbs.

"The Democrats have already voted to BAN our conventional lightbulbs (that you and I use even today!) in favor of DANGEROUS fluorescent lightbulbs."

But it's about more that just lightbulbs, the letter argues. It's about "putting an end to governmental interference in our lives!"

The letter comes from AmeriPAC, a political action committee that largely supports conservative Republican candidates, and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise Action Fund.

The letter seeks contributions and support for S.B. 395, the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., which seeks to repeal the lightbulb efficiency standards included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The letter encapsulates many of the arguments put forth by opponents of the new lightbulb efficiency standards, and so PolitiFact decided to check some of the rhetoric, starting with the central claim that, "Democrats have already voted to ban our conventional lightbulbs (that you and I use even today!) in favor of dangerous fluorescent lightbulbs."

First, it's not accurate to pin the law entirely to Democrats. It's true that more Democrats than Republicans voted for the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. But it got a measure of bipartisan support and it was signed by Republican President George W. Bush.

More important, the law does not ban incandescent lightbulbs. The law is technology-neutral; it requires that new lightbulbs meet new efficiency standards. Essentially, lightbulbs have to be about 25 percent more energy efficient while still putting off the same amount of light. It's true that the traditional versions of incandescent lightbulbs do not meet those new standards and will be phased out of existence. Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs offer more efficient alternatives, but if incandescent light is your thing, the major lightbulb makers have you covered. They are now selling halogen incandescent bulbs that meet the new efficiency standards.

One of the letter's worst inaccuracies is that "You will be mandated by federal law to get rid of your existing lightbulbs."

There is nothing in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that requires you to get rid of the lightbulbs you've got. Rather, the bill sets standards for new lightbulbs "manufactured or imported" to the United States.

According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, not only can people keep using their existing bulbs, stores can continue to sell the old ones — even after the new standards are in place — until they are sold out.

Or, as Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, put it, "There are no energy police coming to your home to make you remove your lightbulbs."

One of the biggest gripes about the new law is that it will force consumers to buy lightbulbs that are significantly more expensive than conventional lightbulbs sold today.

"Democrats in Congress passed legislation that raises the cost of a single lightbulb to $50!" the letter claims.

That is in reference to a May 16 Associated Press story about two leading lightbulb makers showcasing LED bulbs that are bright enough to replace the 100 watt lightbulbs that will be phased out in January — and which were projected to cost about $50 each.

Later, the letter claims that "the new lightbulbs will cost roughly six times the cost of the lightbulbs we now use."

That comes from a U.S. News and World Report story which states, "Each cone-shaped spiral CFL (compact fluorescent light) costs about $3, compared with 50 cents for a standard bulb."

There are, however, two major problems with the claims. First, there are two costs to a lightbulb: the front-end cost of a lightbulb at the store and the cost of electricity to operate it. The letter fails to consider the savings to consumers in the form of lower electricity bills, which the Department of Energy estimates will far outweigh the additional up-front cost of the alternative lightbulb options.

The other problem is the assumption that consumers will have no options come January when the new efficiency standards kick in. Even if you consider only the up-front cost of lightbulbs, consumers would not be obligated to buy LED bulbs that cost as much as $50 apiece; nor would they be forced to purchase fluorescent alternatives that go for $3 apiece. There also are halogen incandescent bulbs for $1.49. It's true that all of these options will cost more at the store than traditional incandescent bulbs cost today. But when you factor in the cost of electricity needed to power the lightbulb, they will end up costing significantly less.

Last, PolitiFact looked into claims that compact fluorescent lightbulbs are "toxic" and "not environmentally friendly" because they contain a small amount of mercury.

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs do contain a small amount of mercury, which is a toxic substance. But government and environmental officials say the risk they pose is very small, particularly if the lightbulbs are disposed of properly and cleaned up properly if one shatters. Moreover, the dire warnings from opponents of the law fail to acknowledge that there is a price to pay for sticking with less efficient traditional incandescent lightbulbs. Those bulbs require far more electricity to operate, and, if they are powered by coal-fired power plants, result in even more mercury emitted into the environment.

Robert Farley can be reached at farley@sptimes.com.

The statement

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs are "toxic" and "not environmentally friendly."

AmeriPAC, in a fundraising letter

The ruling

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs contain a small amount of mercury, but government and environmental officials say the risk they pose is very small. We rate the claim Half True.

The statement

"The new lightbulbs will cost roughly six times the cost of the lightbulbs we now use."

AmeriPAC, in a fundraising letter

The ruling

When you factor in the cost of electricity needed to power the lightbulb, they will end up costing significantly less. We rate the claim Barely True.

The statement

"The Democrats have already voted to ban our conventional lightbulbs … in favor of dangerous fluorescent lightbulbs."

AmeriPAC, in a fundraising letter

The ruling

There is no basis in fact to claim they have been banned in favor of fluorescent bulbs. We rule this claim Pants on Fire.

Bulb warnings are light on facts 05/29/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 30, 2011 12:58pm]

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