States Wax Fluorescent

What's the latest bright idea to save energy? Lawmakers in at least seven states want to ban ordinary light bulbs in favor of longer-lasting, energy-efficient compact fluorescents.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) already has ordered state agencies to fill the light sockets with fluorescents to save electricity and cut power-plant emissions blamed for global warming.

In what could be the beginning of the end for inventor Thomas Alva Edison's most famous achievement, even his home state of New Jersey has a bill to do away with energy-eating incandescent bulbs in state government buildings within three years. A similar proposal is up for debate in South Carolina. And legislatures in California, Connecticut, North Carolina and Rhode Island are debating bills to phase out traditional light bulbs statewide by 2012 or 2016 as a way to trim consumers' and governments' electricity bills and to help save the planet from global warming.

The incandescent light bulb isn't on a slippery slope just in the United States. Australia already has banned it by 2010, and the Canadian province of Ontario will do the same by 2012.

The problem is that more than 90 percent of the energy used to light a thin tungsten filament inside common bulbs - using a different material but the same design as Edison in 1879 - goes to waste as excess heat, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Several inventors actually worked on the light bulb before Edison, but he's credited with improving it enough for safe, practical use.

Fluorescent lights use electricity to excite a gas inside a glass tube. They consume one-quarter to one-third as much electricity as conventional light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, according to ACEEE. One downside, though, is they also contain small amounts of toxic mercury and should be properly recycled, the EPA recommends.

With an estimated 4 billion light sockets in the country, the simple gesture of changing a light bulb is seen as a big idea in a world just told by an international scientific panel that human activity is almost certainly heating up the planet. The less electricity a household uses, the less power that must be generated by coal- and natural gas-fired plants that produce carbon dioxide, one of the main gases blamed for global warming.

The California bill , which would ban the sale of most incandescent bulbs in the Golden State by 2012, was passed by the Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee on April 23. A competing measure would require all residential lighting in California to be 50 percent more energy-efficient by 2018.

The proposed bans in California, North Carolina and Rhode Island would bar the sale of incandescent bulbs that use 25 watts to 150 watts of electricity but would exclude appliance lighting and several specialty lamps, such as used in traffic signals, on boats or inside mines.

The Connecticut bill would authorize the state Commissioner of Environmental Protection to develop a list of inefficient incandescent bulbs to be banned.

Besides cutting consumers' electricity bills, fluorescent lighting has potential to cut the nation's carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as 125 billion pounds a year, according to the ACEEE. 

Patrick's office estimates that changing 1,000 bulbs in Massachusetts' State House will save $15,000 a year in electricity usage and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 56 tons. "It's a small start, but such small starts add up to big savings - in our pocketbooks, and for our environment," Patrick said in a statement when announcing his executive order April 18.

States aren't alone in targeting the light bulb. U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) also has introduced a bill that would require all bulbs to be as efficient as fluorescents by 2012.

In March, bulb-maker Phillips Lighting Co. announced a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups to advocate measures phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2016.

Eyeing potential profits from energy savings and a growing market of environmentally conscious customers, Home Depot gave away 1 million fluorescent bulbs on Earth Day (April 22), said Jean Niemi, a spokeswoman for the home improvement company. Discount retailer Wal-Mart has a goal of selling 100 million fluorescents a year.