Light Bulb Heat Case Study

The examples of conservative misinformation—devoutly believed by followers, repeatedly asserted by ideological leaders and media outlets—are growing too numerous to count. I seriously cannot keep track any longer, and this is an area where I specialize.

A new one has cropped up: Call it light bulb madness. My sometime co-blogger Jon Winsor, FrumForum, and Joe Romm/Media Matters have all you want to know about it. Brief summary: Many conservatives, and conservative media outlets (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News) are claiming that a 2007 law about to take effect banned incandescent light bulbs, and thus rammed compact-fluorescents down our throats.

It’s the kind of cry virtually assured to make individualist-slash-free market conservatives angry: How dare the government touch my freedoms? And it has even led to legislation to reverse the “ban,” sponsored by Texas’s Joe Barton.

Trouble is, there is no “ban.” Rather, the law required greater lighting efficiency, and some inefficient incandescents will accordingly be phased out beginning in January 2012, but you can still buy other versions. What has actually happened is that the legislation caused the lighting industry to retool and put more energy efficient incandescents on the market—and in fact, the industry wanted these standards in the first place.

Here are the facts, from David Jenkins of Frum Forum:

The bulb ban rhetoric is a deliberate misrepresentation of a provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (ESIA) that sets efficiency standards for general-purpose screw-in incandescent light bulbs. The new standards—for what the industry calls “medium screw-based bulbs”—are set to take effect in January.

Major lighting manufacturers helped draft the new standards so that they could avoid a patchwork of state standards. They are fighting the repeal proposal because it threatens to strand the investments they have made to retool and produce lighting products that meet the standards.

In addition to claiming that the incandescent bulb is being banned and that we are all going to be forced to use compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), Barton is also saying that bulbs meeting the new standards are cost prohibitive.

Again, not true. A Philips incandescent bulb that meets the new standards currently sells for $1.49, lasts about 50 percent longer than older incandescent bulbs, and saves consumers more than $3.00 in energy expenditures. For four bucks you can buy an incandescent that lasts 3000 hours and nets you more than $10 in energy savings.

And here are the kinds of misrepresentations that are afoot, for instance from Fox News’s Forbes on Fox:

DAVIDASMAN (host): I hate fluorescent bulbs. They make me feel sick. They give me a headache. And when they break, they create all kinds of stuff — starting in just seven months from now, we won’t be able to buy an incandescent bulb.

VICTORIABARRET, FORBES: I know. I’m actually hoarding the old-fashioned bulbs.

ASMAN: Me too.

BARRET: I went on and I bought, I’m not kidding, 80 of them, 80. It’s crazy, but I can’t stand the fluorescent stuff because it takes two minutes to warm up and by the time tow minutes have past, I’m out of my hallway. [Fox News, Forbes on Fox, 6/11/11]

Sadly, this stuff is a matter of course nowadays.

What can we do about it? The falsehoods come so fast and furious now, refuting them is almost meaningless. And minds don’t change if you do, anyways.

We need a much broader national conversation about the prevalence of misinformation, where it is coming from, and the psychological and media dynamics that generate it.

Don’t hold your breath.

Older incandescent bulbs, such as the one above, throw more heat than energy-efficient CFL bulbs. (CBC)

Questions are being raised about whether so-called energy saving light bulbs might cause cold-weather Canadians to burn more energy to heat their homes than if they were to use regular light bulbs.

CBC News has found that in some cases compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) can have the adverse effect of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, depending on how consumers heat their homes.

Physics professor Peter Blunden at the University of Manitoba said CFL bulbs are certainly more energy efficient than older incandescent bulbs.

But in cold-weather climates such as Canada's, Blunden said older incandescent bulbs do more than just light our homes. During the long winter months, they also generate heat. The new CFL bulbs on the other hand produce minimal heat so the loss has to be made up by fossil-fuel burning gas, oil or wood to heat your home.

"To some extent, the case [in favour of CFL bulbs] has been oversold" because of the offset in higher heating costs, he said.

In fact, a recent report by BC Hydro estimates new lighting regulations will increase annual greenhouse gas emissions in British Columbia by 45,000 tonnes annually as consumers use more energy to heat their homes after switching to more energy efficient — but cooler — lighting.

"The replacement of inefficient lights with efficient lights that produce less waste heat will lead to increased fossil fuel use for non-electric space heating," says the report, part of a submission BC Hydro made to the B.C. Utilities Commission last month.

Another study, by the Canadian Centre for Housing Technology, also concluded that actual dollar savings by using CFLs depend on the climate in which a home is located. In Canada, in winter, "the reduction in the lighting energy use was almost offset by the increase in the space-heating energy use," the study said.

But Canadians, depending on where they live and the severity of the winter, may still benefit from using CFL lighting, despite the higher cost of the new bulbs and the additional heat energy consumed, said the CCHT study, conducted in 2008.

Some proponents of the CFL bulbs claim the new bulbs use only about 25 per cent of the energy of old incandescent bulbs.

"In Winnipeg you are going to lose a significant amount of those savings," said Blunden.

Indeed, when everything is factored in, Blunden says the real energy saving for Winnipeggers using CFL bulbs is probably closer to 17 per cent. Blunden said energy saving results will vary across the country, depending on how consumers heat their homes.

If you live in Newfoundland, for example, where many people use expensive heating oil "it might even cost you money" to use the new, cooler, efficient, CFL bulbs for lighting, Blunden suggested.

"If your advertising campaign says you’re going to save money, then you’ve kind of shot yourself in the foot," he said, noting CFL bulbs were originally designed for use in warmer climates.

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