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Bright ideas for energy efficiency

Calif. politician Lloyd Levine launched a bill that would ban incandescent bulbs. But that hardly means a return to the Dark Ages.

Lloyd Levine, assembly member for the 40th district of California, is on a crusade to reduce energy consumption in his state one lightbulb at a time.

Levine's plan was to convince constituents to make the switch to compact fluorescent and light-emitting diode lightbulbs. But his proposed ban on the sale of general service incandescent bulbs gained the attention of leading light bulb manufacturers, who pointed out that new technology could make incandescents more energy efficient. Now what started as a simple ban on one type of lightbulb may evolve into Energy Star standards for many types of bulbs in the state.

Q: On February 22, you introduced a bill for California that, if passed, would ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs for standard household lamps by 2012. How would this switch theoretically change energy consumption in California?
Levine: Twenty percent of residential energy bills are in lighting. By making a change in lightbulbs, you would have a 75 percent reduction in your energy consumption. You would save roughly $62 per bulb over the life of the bulb by making a switch from an incandescent to a compact fluorescent. We used the California Energy Commission's average cost of a bulb and the average laboratory test lifespan of the bulb. A compact fluorescent bulb will last 10 times as long as an incandescent bulb.

Even though the alternative bulbs have been out for a while, I think people hear the word "fluorescent" and immediately picture the tubes in dimly lit office ceilings. Can you explain the difference between incandescent and compact fluorescent lightbulbs?
Levine: A CFL bulb uses 75 percent less energy to produce the same number of lumens as an incandescent bulb. The traditional method of measuring light has been in wattage, but really, wattage is an energy consumption measure. Ninety to 95 percent of the energy that's used in an incandescent bulb actually goes to heat and not light.

And how is that with a CFL?
Levine: I believe 25 percent goes to heat rather than light with a CFL. So there's a huge savings there in heat that's significant because you're capturing more of the energy for the bulb.

People think there are differences in the quality of bulbs. All of those old notions...really aren't true. I've got CFL bulbs in my office that come in an array of sizes, shapes and colors: frosted candelabra, miniature bulbs, large bulbs, a 2-watt bulb equivalent to a 15-watt soft lightbulb. I even have a three-way bulb.

I should tell you just so it's clear to you and the readers, I have done nothing special. All the bulbs that I have in my office (except for two) are from either my staff or I going to Home Depot, Target...We went to see what we could find as members of the general public.

Everybody wants electricity but nobody wants the power plants...or the power lines. Well, then we need to use our energy more efficiently.

Do they make them for outdoor use as well?
Levine: Any kinds you want--indoor, outdoor. I even have the yellow kind you put in any porch lamp so it doesn't attract bugs. The light quality of compact fluorescence is the exact same now as incandescence. You can now get full-spectrum compact fluorescent. They now come in different degrees Kelvin, which is the color temperature of light...any kind you could possibly want. But the people need to be educated on that.

My legislation doesn't actually just focus on compact fluorescents; it really focuses on the removal of the incandescents, but doesn't specify a substitute.

What else would replace the incandescent bulb?
Levine: The two most common I know right now are CFLs and LEDs, and actually there are LEDs in common usage today that are perfectly appropriate.

Most Christmas lights these days are LED lights because you save energy, but they're also brighter and better colored. The other place they're commonly used is in traffic lights and signals. They're brighter, easier to see, last a lot longer and use far less energy. When you're talking about a city that has to pay for energy and you have traffic lights all over the city; you can save a considerable amount of money by making that switch.

LEDs work really well for under-cabinet lighting or directional lighting in rooms. They're not quite as good for a nightstand because they're much more focused in one direction.

You had a successful vote in committee on April 23 in favor of your bill, AB 722(click here for PDF). What happens next in the process?
Levine: It goes to the appropriations committee and I expect I'll get a favorable vote there, and then it goes to the floor of the assembly.

There have been reports of a possible compromise to change the bill from an all-out ban, to allow for new types of incandescent lightbulbs that are energy efficient. General Electric announced in February it's working on a more efficient incandescent bulb that may be ready in 2010 before the 2012 ban would even start.
Levine: Yes, and I like the fact that they did that. They (said) they did that because of me.

You specifically drafted this bill to say incandescent lightbulb. Have GE, or companies like that, been lobbying you to change the wording of your bill? Are you considering backing down from a complete ban on that type of bulb?
Levine: Yes, they have. I've met with them; they've discussed it. We are right now doing research on the efficiency standards for lightbulbs. They're a little bit different in each company. Philips, for example, has already announced they're actually stopping production of incandescent lightbulbs--I believe next year.

GE on the other hand came out and said, "Hey, we're making an energy-efficient lightbulb, you know. What about that?" So they're all working with me, not in opposition, to try to craft legislation that works.

Maybe you can explain more. You seem to be very deep in this.
Levine: You have no idea.

But, you've just been saying how CFLs are great and they've been on the market for some time and they're readily available. What's the advantage to lessening the bill's rigorous intent to give GE time to develop a more efficient incandescent lightbulb? GE already sells CFLs. Why not just say, "Well, we're happy you're getting on the green wagon, but in the meantime, your old line of incandescent bulbs for the home are just going to be banned"?
Levine: Well, because there's a number of other bulbs we're looking at right now. We were just focusing on general-service incandescent, but with new efficiency standards we may be able to work with the companies in such a way that this applies to a broader spectrum of lighting.

We're talking about regulations with the Energy Star program.

You know, the idea behind this is to make lighting more efficient to reduce energy cost. Energy efficiency means doing the same thing but using energy less to do it...Your refrigerator today keeps the same amount of food, sometimes more, just as cold as it did 20 years ago. Yet it uses a fraction of the energy to keep that food cold.

I personally installed CFLs in all the fixtures and lamps in my home that have shades or glass coverings. And I really haven't been able to tell the difference. But when I tried the CFLs for recessed lighting in my kitchen, they took about 30 seconds to come on and the light was extremely harsh. It was so bothersome we had to put the old ones back in. What do you say to this type of a complaint?
Levine: You probably bought the wrong ones. If you buy a bad bulb, don't equate all CFL bulbs with that.

I will tell you personally, I used to get headaches from compact fluorescents. I actually now have one as my bedside light that I read by before I go to sleep at night.

And you're saying it's because you had a different kind?
Levine: Yeah, it's a newer bulb, newer technology.

So, people who want to make the change, what should they look for on the packaging to make sure they buy the "good" CFLs as opposed to the harsh-looking ones?
Levine: Look for major manufacture labels: Philips, Sylvania, GE; there's a couple others. The ones you buy at the 99 cents store, while cheap, aren't good. Look for the Energy Star label. If you've got lights that go in dimmer switches--this is one difference between the two--compact fluorescents that are used with dimmer switches actually have to say dimmable on them. You can go find them in a lot of stores: Home Depot, Lowe's, you know, Ikea, Target. I was more successful there than I have been in grocery stores, I will tell you that.

This is just sort of a kitchen table question, but what about the fact that CFLs are more expensive initially?
Levine: Marginally.

In my own research, I found the average 75-watt incandescent bulb was about 82 cents, and a 20-watt CFL, the equivalent to the 75 watt, is about $4.80. That's not a big deal for you and me, but how would poor families offset the initial higher cost?
Levine: The average cost we found here is $3 versus 50 cents for comparable bulbs. That doesn't take into account that, at least in California, most of the energy companies--whether they're the investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities--engage in giveaway programs.

In my district...the department of water and power brought 1,000 lightbulbs to give away all free. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has a program where they subsidize them at hardware stores so you can get them for about 99 cents, or two for 99 cents.

We've done things here in California that actually provide incentives to the utility companies to give away lightbulbs. We have put energy efficiency at the top of our energy loading order...so it's the first thing that they're required to invest in.

Secondly, we have broken the linkage between the profit and the energy sold. In the old model, the more energy you sold, the more money you got. We don't actually do that.

How does that work?
Levine: A very complicated formula through the Public Utilities Commission basically smooths out an average rate of return for the energy companies...If this year you sell less in California because you've engaged in energy efficiency, we still smooth out your average to make sure that your profits aren't dipping.

Levine: So because of those two incentives a lot of the companies treat energy efficiency as procurement, not just as a public benefit. And one of the things they do is give away or subsidize the sale of lightbulbs.

CFLs can't be thrown out with regular thrash. Are there measures in the final version of your bill to provide for this?
Levine: Yes, we will be engaged in an educational effort with consumers, and the recycling component would be there as well.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Levine: You know, as a kind of half-joke, I say everybody wants the electricity but nobody wants the power plants, and everybody wants electricity but nobody wants the power line. Well, then we need to use our energy more efficiently, and this just follows in that vein.

If you can't bring yourself right now to make the switch for every light, what about your porch light? Does your porch light really have to be incandescent? You know, what about your outside lights? What about your garage lights? What about closet lights? Look around your house. How many bulbs are there that you could change that you don't read by?

Those are the kinds of changes people can start to make even if they're not going to go 100 percent. You can still make a savings, make an energy savings, make a cost savings.