Diary

How many govt agencies does it take to screw up a light bulb?

One. The Energy Dept under Bill Clinton according to this article. But not to worry, Obama’s Federal Trade Commission will come to the rescue.

It sounds like such a simple thing to do: buy some new light bulbs, screw them in, save the planet.

But a lot of people these days are finding the new compact fluorescent bulbs anything but simple. Consumers who are trying them say they sometimes fail to work, or wear out early.

I bet all of us who use them can vouch for that. And in addition they never seem to be bright enough.

Take the case of Karen Zuercher and her husband, in San Francisco. Inspired by watching the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” they decided to swap out nearly every incandescent bulb in their home for energy-saving compact fluorescents. Instead of having a satisfying green moment, however, they wound up coping with a mess.

“Here’s my sad collection of bulbs that didn’t work,” Ms. Zuercher said the other day as she pulled a cardboard box containing defunct bulbs from her laundry shelf.

Maybe San Francisco will become a huge hazmat zone. Perhaps this is what the Dems are saving Yucca Mountain for.

Compact fluorescents once cost as much as $30 apiece. Now they go for as little as $1 — still more than regular bulbs, but each compact fluorescent is supposed to last 10 times longer, save as much as $5.40 a bulb each year in electricity, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal in power plants.

Much of the credit for that sharp cost decline goes to the Energy Department. The agency asked manufacturers in 1998 to create cheaper models and then helped find large-volume buyers, like universities and utilities, to buy them. That jump-started a mass market and eventually led to sales of discounted bulbs at retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart Stores and Home Depot.

Consumers are supposed to be able to protect themselves by buying bulbs certified under the government’s Energy Star program. But experts and some environmental groups complain that Energy Star standards are weak, permitting low-quality bulbs with too high a level of mercury, a toxic metal contained in all compact fluorescents.

The Chinese strike again! That’s where lots of these come from.

The government, which will begin enforcing tighter specifications this year, says it must seek a balance between quality and affordability to achieve its goal of getting millions of additional consumers to install the bulbs.

“Something that is perfect but not affordable wouldn’t serve the broad interests,” said Peter Banwell, the Energy Department’s manager of product marketing for Energy Star.

Couldn’t we make the same argument about using DDT to fight malaria in Africa?

In California, where bulbs have been heavily encouraged, utilities have concluded that they will not be able to persuade a majority of consumers to switch until compact fluorescents get better. That is prompting them to develop specifications for a better bulb.

The effort aims to address the most consumer complaints: poor dimming, slow warm-up times, shortened bulb life because of high temperatures inside enclosed fixtures, and dissatisfaction with the color of the light.

“Because of the aggressive goals in California, we have to be pushing the envelope at all times,” said Roland Risser, director of customer efficiency at Pacific Gas and Electric.

Doesn’t this kind of sum up the Obama administration? “We don’t have time to plan this out or study the consequences. We need to act! Now!!”