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Editorial: A Bright Future; Dimming of the Incandescent Bulb

Reports of the death of incandescent light bulbs have been exaggerated, but it’s true that manufacturers are phasing out the most common varieties because they don’t meet energy standards established by Congress back in 2007. Consequently, Thomas Edison’s invention, the shapely glass bulb with a delicate filament, will become increasingly hard to find, and it may soon join the phonograph, the wringer washing machine and the rotary phone in the graveyard of household icons.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 did not ban the manufacture or use of incandescent bulbs. It required light-bulb makers to improve bulbs’ efficiency by 25 percent and to phase out older inefficient models, starting with 100-watt bulbs in 2012, 75-watt bulbs last year, and 60- and 40-watt bulbs this year. Because most manufacturers haven’t been able to meet the newer efficiency standards — there are limits to Edison’s century-old technology — they have turned to making and selling energy-saving alternatives, largely compact fluorescents and LED lights.

The gradual demise of incandescent bulbs is nothing to moan about if you’re interested in environmental protection. While incandescent light is pleasing, the bulbs give off a lot of heat and waste a lot of energy. Furthermore, they don’t last very long. The typical incandescent bulb is good for about a year, compared with 10 years for compact fluorescents and up to 25 years for LED lights, assuming average usage. The federal government’s Energy.gov website estimates that consumers save as much as 80 percent on energy costs by switching to more efficient light bulbs. This switch has contributed to home electricity use falling to its lowest level since 2001.

Even so, cheap incandescent bulbs are not without their devotees and fierce defenders. Retailers such as Home Depot report that incandescent bulb sales have been brisk ever since the government announced that most would be phased out, and some householders are busily stockpiling them while supplies last. Decorators are particularly fond of the color and warmth of incandescent light, which fluorescents and LEDs can’t replicate.

Aesthetics aside, the mandate to curtail the manufacture of inefficient incandescent bulbs has annoyed some conservatives, who see it as yet another sign of an encroaching nanny state. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., jumped in two years ago to introduce the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. Talk show host Glenn Beck, among others, has urged people to hoard incandescent bulbs, equating the fate of light bulbs with the death of liberty.

If there’s a death to mourn, it’s not liberty but a metaphor for creative thinking, as in: “The light bulb switched on in my head.” The image that comes to mind is not a puny LED or a coiled compact fluorescent but an illuminated incandescent bulb, the invention responsible for lighting the night and advancing modern civilization. Edison’s creation has come to denote the imaginative solution, the smart fix. If the incandescent bulb goes the way of the vinyl record and floppy disk, though, it will no longer serve as a symbol for innovation. Cartoonists will have to come up something else. But what? Send in your bright ideas, but please keep them under 100 watts.