Obama Punches America's Lights Out

Literally - no more light bulbs!

One of Mr. Obama's signature story lines is that we can protect the environment, Save the Planet, and revive our economy by creating hordes of high-paying new jobs in new energy-related businesses.  Unfortunately, like the committed statist he is, Mr. Obama neglected to give the new industries time to develop or to ease the crushing regulatory burdens which are pushing jobs overseas.

Rather than letting customers decide what kind of light bulbs they wanted to buy, laws were passed in 2007 requiring that incandescent lighting be phased out by 2014.  Unfortunately for American workers, the new twisty fluorescent light bulbs require a lot more hand labor to put together than the old bulbs.  Thus, although the new lights were invented in America, no manufacturer actually makes the bulbs here.

Dim bulbs.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the upcoming ban is leading American manufacturers to close their doors and sack all their employees.  The Washington Post wrote on September 8, 2010:

WINCHESTER, VA. - The last major GE factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs in the United States is closing this month, marking a small, sad exit for a product and company that can trace their roots to Thomas Alva Edison's innovations in the 1870s.

The remaining 200 workers at the plant here will lose their jobs.

Job loss here and job creation overseas is utterly unsurprising given the British experience.  In "'Green' lightbulbs poison workers" TimesOnline from the Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, reports:

When British consumers are compelled to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs from 2012, they will save up to 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. In China, however, a heavy environmental price is being paid for the production of "green" lightbulbs in cost-cutting factories.

Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.

Here we have an unintended side-effect of European industrial policy which is being imitated uncritically by American industrial policy: European governments mandated a switch to compact fluorescent bulbs to reduce electricity use and ended up poisoning "large numbers of Chinese workers" and turning used light bulbs into what's technically hazardous waste because of the mercury content.

The Chinese have known about the dangers of mercury poisoning since shortly after the death of Confucius:

In China, people have been aware of the element's toxic properties for more than 2,000 years because legend has it that the first emperor, Qin, died in 210BC after eating a pill of mercury and jade he thought would grant him eternal life.

An American light-bulb factory may not employ the thousands it once did, but at least there were hundreds of jobs which paid as much as $30 per hour.  Environmentalist light-bulb mandates have created thousands of new "green" jobs - but on the other side of the world, and the jobs are not nearly as green as advertised.

Such market-bending regulations are particularly unfortunate in the light of technical progress - the efficiency of an old-style incandescent light can be doubled by zapping the filament with a laser.  "Regular Light Bulbs Made Super-Efficient with Ultra-Fast Laser" physicsorg.com, May 29, 2009, to be published in an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters, reports that this can be done right through the glass after the bulb has been manufactured.

Now that the regulations mandating the new lights are in place, however, changing them to permit this new version of old-fashioned technology is going to be rather difficult, and 200 former GE employees are out in the street.

It's evident that Mr. Obama's pie-crust promises about creating green jobs aren't working all that well:

President Obama said last month that he expects the government's commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012, one step in a larger journey planned to restore U.S. manufacturing.

Energy Savings May Not Be Realized

A twisty florescent bulb uses about 75% less energy to produce the same amount of light.  On this basis, activists have projected vast savings on electricity use if everyone switched.  Those rosy savings projections assume that people will be satisfied with generating the same amount of light which satisfied them back in the bad old days of low-efficiency incandescent bulbs.

The Economist argues that the anticipated savings may not materialize.  In fact, if light becomes cheap enough, demand may go up enough that lighting, which already uses 6.5% of the world's electricity, may use even more.  Their article points out that back in the days of candles, a typical Briton purchased 580 lumen-hours of light per year.  Today, the average Biron uses 46 megalumen-hours, almost 100,000 times as much.  As light became cheaper, people bought more of it.  There is no reason to assume that people's desire for more light would change as costs drop.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics by Jeff Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and his colleagues. They predict that the introduction of solid-state lighting could increase the consumption of light by a factor of ten within two decades[emphasis added]

If this projection of past behavior turns out to be true, mandating the switch to twisty florescent bulbs won't save any electricity at all, but the law surely will destroy more American jobs as more and more of our remaining light bulb factories turn off the lights and ship the jobs to China.

Why Manufacture Overseas?

If the innovations originated in America, why are all the manufacturing jobs going overseas?  Part of the reason is simply higher wages but regulatory burdens also play a major part.  In "The Regulation Tax Keeps Growing," the Wall Street Journal September 27, 2010, reported that the overall regulatory burden facing Americans was $1.75 trillion in 2008, or about 14% of national income.  This is in addition to taxes.

The cost works out to about $7,755 per worker for large manufacturing firms while small firms pay at least 25% more.  Thus, before the worker does a single lick of work, GE has to shell out more than $7,000 per worker just to comply with government regulations.  A small start-up manufacturer would face an even greater burden; there's simply no way for a new manufacturer to get off the ground without massive government subsidies.

The Washington Post observes that even though they make about 1/20 of American wages, Chinese wages are rising and workers are beginning to complain about industrial pollution.  One large Chinese lighting plant has 14,000 workers, but the company is trying to reduce employment to around 5,000 through automation to keep costs under control.

American automation skills are still pretty good.  We could have made the same productivity improvements and kept the jobs in America given time, but the hasty changeover imposed by the government left manufacturers no choice but to go to China for the reduced wages and reduced regulatory costs.

The Chinese company is talking about opening a factory in the US after it perfects its manufacturing process and gets the amount of labor needed down far enough.  Overall costs would be higher, but some retailers are saying that customers would pay more for bulbs made in the United States.  This project can't go ahead until the company finds government financing, however.  Private manufacturing investments are not all that common just now, particularly for processes involving hazardous materials like mercury.  NO matter how many forms were filled out ahead of time, there's no assurance that the factory would be permitted to operate once it was completed.

In the meantime, how many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?  Far too few.

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

Excellent post - one of the few here I've actually agreed with 100%. I do think, however, the title was mildly steeped in hyperbole. The lightbulb-ban was enacted on Bush's watch. Either he drank the kool-aid of "green jobs" right along with everyone else, or he knew the truth and didn't give a shit. It's just that Obama hasn't done anything to fix the damage, for fear he'd piss off his Green base.

Meantime, in my neighborhood in PA, BJ's Wholesale were selling 36-packs of 60w incandescents for $5.59. I bought 2 on the spot, and will probably buy more as long as they continue to sell them. I can conceivably put off the Day of Reckoning for as long as a decade.

October 25, 2010 11:01 AM

"In the meantime, how many politicians does it take to change a light bulb? Far too few"

Brilliant line, truly.

October 25, 2010 11:10 AM


Right on, sir. What in the world a Republican president thought he was doing by signing this legislative toilet paper is far beyond me; as for Obama, he's either a true believer in the Green Jobs nonsense, which means he's a fool, or it's just one more tool in his toolbox he's employing to cause as much havoc and destruction as he can get away with before he's tossed out on his ass, which means he's pure evil. (I think it's a bit of both.) Any useless government functionary who wishes to tell me what I can or cannot use to light *my* own house can go to hell.

While I haven't a BJ's in my neck of the PA woods, I still make it a point to pick up several packs of simple light bulbs most times I go to Wally World. There's a huge stack of them in my basement, and it grows like kudzu. I can put off that day too! With a little more luck, a future congress and president that aren't brain dead Gaia worshippers or evil Statists will rescind this idiotic law (unconstitutional in the first place) and I can last until then.

October 25, 2010 3:54 PM

Brother John - where were you when they banned toilets that actually worked?

October 25, 2010 7:18 PM


Sir, I was probably atop my three-gallon flush toilet! I've been fortunate in that respect, as all the apartments I've had were so equipped, and my house is as well. If three-gallon toilets were sold by the case, I'd be stocking up there as well in the event of failure.

As to where I was at that time, if I remember properly I don't think I'd reached voting age yet...

October 25, 2010 8:05 PM

Last I knew, you could still get them in Canada. You can also get them used at plenty of homebuilders' recycling centers. It's not illegal to have or even sell them, just to make or sell new ones.

October 25, 2010 10:06 PM

Then, John, I hope you will make up for lost time and vote against any and all incumbents.

October 26, 2010 6:16 PM

Real low cost Energy
by Troy Jordan
Electricity for $0.04 per KW
I began looking for alternative energy sources several years ago while managing the utilities for a large mental hospital.
1) After running the numbers in 1983 I determining that it requires more energy (BTUs) to make a gallon of ethanol than you get out when it is burned in an automobile or anything else. Ethanol also has less energy than even regular gasoline and can reduce gas mileage up to 20% compared to gasoline. It is stupid to pour money into continuing production of ethanol from corn or any food. Until we have a process that can create more BTUs output than required BTUs input.
2) Windmills are not the answer. Check out what happened in England in December 2010 when it gets really cold there is very little wind. Their windmills produced very little electricity during the coldest weather they have had in years. Huge investment in infrastructure of little to no use, fossil fuel plants had to carry the load when demand was highest and reliability was foremost.
3) Solar panels are not the answer. They only work when the sun shines, and at present the efficiency is only 10%. Solar cells now in experimental labs are almost 20% efficient but it will be years before those units are available and costs may be prohibitive.
For 2 and 3 above:
a) They can not be placed near where the most power is needed (large Cities).
b) It is necessary to build huge additions to the current power grid.
c) Both of these options also require huge tracks of land.
I have found what I believe is the most viable source for all of this nation's future electrical energy needs.
"The Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor."
A proof-of-concept fluoride reactor (Aircraft Reactor Experiment) was built and operated in 1954 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A 3 megawatt reactor was actually made small enough to be placed on a bomber and flown around Texas and New Mexico to test for shielding of the crew. They envisioned nuclear powered bombers until ballistic missiles made such plans obsolete.
The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), was built and operated by Oak Ridge National Labatory from 1965 to 1969. The Atomic Energy Comission moved to shut down all research on fluoride reactors at ORNL in the mid-1970s, and the fluoride reactor team was disbanded and assigned to other projects.
a) These reactors will shut themselves down with no harm if there is a power failure.
b) They can not blow up or explode.
c) 100 Megawatt units can be manufactured in a factory and shipped on a tractor trailer truck for emergencies.
d) They can destroy spent nuclear fuel form other reactors.
e) The reactor operates at very low pressure (near atmospheric).
f) There is no need for a huge containment vessel.
g) One ton of Thorium fuel will produce a gigawatt of power for a year.
h) The US government already has over 330 tons of thorium stored in the Nevada desert.
i) Thorium is plentiful in the US and the world.
j) Fuel can be added while the unit is operation.
k) Fuel reprocessing is carried out while the reactor is in operation.
There is a wealth in information about this on the web. I have read that 2 or 3 billion dollars would be needed to rediscover technology that the tax payers have already paid for once if the regulators would cooperate.

July 20, 2011 12:30 PM

Regulators won't cooperate. They work for Obama and he WANTS energy costs to skyrocket, he has said so.

July 20, 2011 2:48 PM
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