Thomas Edison Would Not Be Happy


Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, was an innovator. But the Trump administration wants to roll back new efficiency standards.

By C. Barry Edison Sloane and J. Heywood Edison Sloane

Both are trustees of the Edison Birthplace Association, which operates the Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum.

Among Thomas Edison’s 1,000-plus inventions, his development of his patented incandescent light bulb surely was among his greatest. Yet Mr. Edison, our great-grandfather, recognized how wasteful the bulb was from the start. It gave off almost 90 percent of its energy as heat instead of light. Still, though the bulb worked extremely well in its own time, he never saw it as the end game.

Our great-grandfather took out multiple patents on multiple inventions, including the light bulb, always with the idea that they could and should be improved.

It took more than a century before others came up with significantly more efficient incandescent bulbs. In the past two decades, the pace of improvement gained rapid momentum, leading to super-efficient, long-lasting light bulbs that save people a great deal of money on electricity. That’s the kind of progress Thomas Edison would have eagerly welcomed.

Despite these monumental advances, the Department of Energy now wants to roll back new efficiency standards signed into law by President George W. Bush and updated, as required, during the Obama administration. The latest update added inefficient three-way, reflector, globe-shaped, and candelabra-style bulbs to the list covered by the standards. These incandescent and halogen bulbs are used in up to 2.7 billion lighting sockets, just under half of all the conventional sockets in American homes and businesses.

The new standards, which would require these bulbs to be as efficient as widely used pear-shaped bulbs and would phase out inefficient incandescents and halogens, were approved in 2017 in the waning days of the Obama administration after a rule-making process of more than two years. Manufacturers and retailers have been preparing since then for the new rules to become effective on Jan. 1, 2020.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration plans to step back from that decision and exempt these bulbs from the standards. If that happens, American consumers will miss out on an estimated $12 billion in annual savings on their utility bills, or about $100 for each household, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. It also means more electricity will need to be generated — 25 coal-burning 500-megawatt power plants’ worth, based on calculations by the Natural Resources Defense Council, creating the same amount of pollution that spews from the tailpipes of seven million cars a year.

The European Union has already banned incandescent and halogen bulbs, and many developing countries are in the process of doing the same, which means America could become a dumping ground for cheap, energy-wasting bulbs.

Congress and the public need to register their strong opposition with the Energy Department by May 3 to increase the odds that the agency will do the right thing and maintain these new energy-saving standards, not narrow their scope.

In addition to abandoning the standards on those incandescent and halogen bulbs, the Trump administration may opt to not enforce standards that require traditional pear-shaped bulbs and others to be at least 65 percent to 70 percent more efficient than old incandescents, beginning next year. The state of California imposed such a requirement last year, but an Energy Department lawyer testified at an administrative hearing in February that the department did not consider itself obligated to do so nationally, though a decision had not been made.

These actions come as we face increasing threats from climate change. As the N.R.D.C. has noted, few actions can reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet as cheaply and easily as replacing energy-wasting bulbs with highly efficient ones. The group estimates that if every household in the United States replaced just one old bulb with an L.E.D., the country’s overall electric bill would be cut by more than $5 billion in 10 years, and two million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution would be avoided.

The savings are so big because the average American household has around 40 lighting sockets, and many still employ energy-wasting bulbs. We need efficiency standards to spur more innovation and ensure that our store shelves carry new bulbs reflecting the latest technology.

Regrettably, special interests have reared their heads once again. Big bulb manufacturers supported by the Energy Department prefer to take the cheap, inefficient and environmentally harmful path for short-term profits. They would sacrifice our common good for their selfish greed.

There was a sign that was placed all over our great-grandfather’s labs that read: “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.” It would appear that some people in the administration are proving that statement, attributed to the 18th-century painter Joshua Reynolds, to be right, by even considering these lighting rollback plans.

Our great-grandfather’s light bulb helped change the world. But it’s almost 140 years old and it’s time to modernize. Thomas Edison would have been the first to say so.

J. Heywood Edison Sloane is a trustee and the treasurer of the Edison Birthplace Association. C. Barry Edison Sloane is a risk management consultant and a trustee of the association.

Original story can be found here.

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  3. Jay says:

    I believe it is very important to reduce incandescent light manufacture and increase LED bulb manufacture full speed ahead! This mostly for consumers to save energy in long run. I also think that original incandescent bulbs should be able to be maintained at the Edison birthplace museum, and at historical lab at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI. It’s important that young people be able to see where we came from (with the original incandescent lights), while learning about the newer LEDs, and halogen, florescent & mercury vapor, & arc lights.

  4. Ross says:

    Edison was absolutely opposed to government control. No, he would not have been unhappy about this rule change.
    Government control stifles innovation. Edison believed in improving the efficiency of the incandescent lamp because he was extraordinarily frugal and because he could sell more lamps than his competition.
    Government forced compact fluorescent lamps on the public for a decade. Now they pollute landfills and the fixtures dedicated to them are being removed at great expense. A horrible technology and a folly of government.

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