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Retailers Can Enlighten Consumers on Bulb Brouhaha

Retailers Can Enlighten Consumers on Bulb Brouhaha

The modest light bulb has become a kind of lightning rod for anti-environmental sentiment in the House of Representatives.

Over the past month, House Republicans have taken aim at the energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs that were adopted on a bipartisan basis in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and signed by President Bush.

On July 12, the House tried to pass a bill that would have gutted those standards, but failed to garner a two-thirds majority. Undeterred, on July 15 Republicans managed to attach a measure withholding funding for the light-bulb standards to a 2012 energy and water appropriations bill that has gone to the Senate.

The new light-bulb standards, which kick in next year, require most bulbs to be 25% to 30% more efficient by 2014 and at least 60% more efficient by 2020. This, in effect, means that the traditional incandescent bulbs used over the past 125 years, which waste about 90% of their energy in heat, will be phased out, saving an estimated $12.5 billion per year in energy costs.

Critics of federal efficiency standards complain that they go too far in retiring incandescent bulbs. Many are also unhappy with the CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs that have taken the place of incandescents.

But, as retailers already know, incandescent bulbs are not really going away — they are being reconfigured to meet the new efficiency standards. New incandescent bulbs, which include halogen models, look and work like traditional bulbs, except that they are 28% to 33% more efficient. This new breed of incandescent, along with even more efficient CFLs and LEDs, give consumers a variety of choices and price points to meet their lighting needs and tastes. And over time, greater volumes will drive down the higher cost of the new bulbs.

CFLs have some disadvantages stemming from their miniscule mercury content; consumers should exercise care in cleaning up a broken CFL, per Energy Star guidelines, and they should try to recycle CFLs. Overall, though, CFLs have met Underwriters Laboratories' rigorous safety standards. Anyway, they are not the only new bulb on the market.

The congressional brouhaha over light bulbs has only served to confuse consumers about the improvements taking place in this category. It underscores the importance of facts at a time when ideology tends to muddy policy debates on even straightforward issues like light-bulb efficiency.

Retailers, who have been on the front lines of the changes in the light-bulb market, are in a good position to bring clarity to this increasingly complex category. Through signage, brochures, websites, social media and employees, and in concert with bulb vendors, retailers can explain what bulbs will be available in the coming years, how they differ, and why they are more cost-effective and better for the environment than their predecessors.

This will serve their sales objectives while educating consumers on the facts behind the evolving light bulb.