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Michael Bryant/MCT/Newscom

Lesser lights

Science | Resistance is building to the fast-approaching mandate that will force Americans to buy compact fluorescent lamps

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

South Carolina state Rep. Dwight A. Loftis thinks the federal government should get out of the lighting business. Because of a 2007 energy law mandating high-efficiency bulbs, beginning next year Americans will be forced to replace burned-out incandescent bulbs with more expensive alternatives. Chief among them: the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL.

Loftis, a 68-year-old former insurance agent, said the CFLs in his bathroom don't last as long as he expected when they are switched on and off frequently. He also realized the bulbs release mercury when broken, a neurotoxin federal regulators have recently restricted in sources like power plants: "And then they're asking us to put these in our houses. I think that's a little hypocrisy there."

So the representative came up with a sly plan: Manufacture those good old-fashioned incandescent bulbs in South Carolina, sell them only within the state, and claim immunity from Congress due to its constitutionally limited power to regulate interstate commerce. A bill Loftis drew up to that effect sailed through the state House in April on a 76-20 vote.

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The legislation reflects what many Americans are realizing: The lauded CFL bulbs may save energy, but their lifespan and brightness is sometimes oversold, and their toxic contents belie their environmental friendliness. For some, the disappointments of the spiraled bulbs illustrate government's clumsy hand in markets.

As the South Carolina Legislature's 2011 regular session wound to a close, Loftis' bulb bill was stalled in a Senate committee while its members spent weeks wrangling over a budget. It could be taken up again next January, but even if it became law, it could face a serious challenge by courts interpreting interstate "commerce" very broadly. H. Sterling Burnett, an energy policy expert at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, told me previous rulings suggest states can set energy standards that are stricter than federal statute, but not looser.

The federal law will effectively eliminate traditional incandescent bulbs over the next three years by requiring standard bulbs of 100, 75, 60, and 40 watts to use about 28 percent less electricity, beginning next January with 100-watt bulbs. Specialty incandescent lights will remain available-for instance, bug lights and bulbs for chandeliers and ceiling fans.

But to replace the average 60-watt incandescent, shoppers will have to buy a high-efficiency bulb that costs about four times as much, such as the General Electric 43-watt halogen bulb. It will only last 1,000 hours-no longer than a cheap incandescent. The 13-watt Homelife CFL bulb does better, at a rated 10,000 hours and $47 in energy savings. But like most CFLs, it can't be used with dimmer or timer switches, or in some recessed light fixtures. Dimmer-compatible CFLs cost extra.

The warning printed on CFLs-CONTAINS MERCURY-provides comic relief to claims of environmental friendliness. To clean up a broken CFL, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends first opening a window and leaving the room for 10 minutes. Then you should seal the larger glass fragments in a canning jar, and pick up the smaller fragments, and dust with the sticky side of a piece of duct tape. (The agency notes, "It is possible that vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor, although available information on this problem is limited.")

Some experts say the fears are overblown, and that the amount of mercury in a typical CFL is so small (just enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen) that the exposure during a careful cleanup is negligible.

Millions of bulbs make a difference, though. California, Maine, and several other states and municipalities have already outlawed tossing CFLs into the trash, and many have arranged "recycling" programs through local retailers.

Burnett, who used to live in South Dakota 18 miles from the nearest small town, said people in rural areas won't be willing to drive dozens of miles to find a recycling location. "In those instances, if you're making me buy CFLs, you know with certainty I'm going to be putting mercury into the environment . . . I'm going to my burn pit, or my garbage pit on the ranch." By one estimate, only a quarter of CFLs are avoiding landfills.

The concerns over mercury are helping spur the development of even newer bulb technologies-like the Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) bulb from a company called Vu1 ("view one"). The bulb is as power-efficient and long-lasting as a CFL, but it's dimmable, nontoxic, and can be used in recessed fixtures. At $19.95, it's also pricey.

Burnett said the best solution to CFL complaints is to rescind the ban on incandescents-something Republicans in Congress are pushing for. "Government has a really poor track record of picking winners and losers in technology," Burnett said. "What they do is they pick political favorites."

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