Peaceful resistance: incandescent light bulb stockpilers defy the ban

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The choice of a chair for the Energy and Commerce Committee is viewed by many to be John Boehner’s first test as speaker; a bellwether for whether he will side with establishment Republicans or the more conservative incoming class of representatives, many of whom are closely aligned with the Tea Party. But for Walter Smith (a Daily Caller pseudonym for a source who didn’t want his name to be used) the decision, which is likely to be between Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, is much more momentous, and will have a far more direct effect on his life.

Smith stockpiles incandescent light bulbs. He has been collecting them for three years now, ever since the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 passed. The act, which imposed a de-facto ban on incandescent bulbs by 2012, was co-sponsored by Upton. In September, Barton co-authored legislation to turn back that part of the bill.

Smith currently has about a thousand incandescent bulbs, which he keeps in boxes in his garage.

“It doesn’t take as much space as you think it does,” he told The Daily Caller. “It’s just a couple large boxes.”

“I buy different wattages,” he explained. “Usually…40 to 100, but I’m trying to focus on 100 lately cause I know those are the first ones to go.”

In an interview with TheDC, Smith explained his many reasons for embarking on what many may see as an eccentric pursuit. “The bill is a nightmare,” he said. “It’s a complete, utter nightmare.”

First of all, the more energy efficient heir apparent to incandescent bulbs, Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFLs), have a tendency to burst into flames. As an experiment, he said, he combined “a regular CFL bulb, and a socket, and a dimmer. I had fireworks within five minutes.”

There’s also an aesthetic component to it. “It’s the color temperature,” Smith said. “The quality of light is just nowhere near what incandescents can do.”

Moreover, Smith, who is skeptical of “the global warming conspiracy” in general, feels that the claims of energy savings associated with CFLs are unsubstantiated. In part, this is a function of how they are used. Energy Star, the certification program for “green” products, suggests that a CFL should be left on for a minimum of 15 minutes to achieve maximum energy savings. This makes CFLs unsuitable for certain applications. For instance, Smith cited the example of the bathroom at an elementary school where he teaches as a substitute.

The constant turning on and off of the lights meant that, at one point, the janitor came in and “he was replacing that same bulb for the third time in three days, ‘cause the on-off cycle was killing them.” The janitor, Smith said, “was also stocking up” on incandescent bulbs.

Another issue Smith cited is that CFLs contain mercury and need to be recycled properly. The little amount of mercury on its own isn’t really enough to cause a problem, but if enough people throw out the bulbs with their normal trash, eventually, it’s going to add up to a lot of mercury in landfills.

Then there’s the fact that CFLs are substantially more expensive than incandescent bulbs. “Basically what this is doing is removing affordable lighting for the poor,” Smith said. “I know that sounds cliché but it’s just the truth. I mean, if you’ve got someone that’s barely feeding themselves, they’ve got a light bulb that goes out and, they’re going to have to go to the store and get a three dollar light bulb versus an 89 cent light bulb.”

“The environmentalists,” Smith concluded, “they have—I’m going to be blunt—no fucking clue about how this is supposed to work out.”

For Brian Noggle, stocking up on incandescent bulbs was less about the problems with CFLs and more about the problems with government. Noggle, who has written about the issue on his blog, found the 2007 act outrageous. “It’s definitely an overreach on the enumerative powers of the federal government,” he told TheDC. “I mean, for them to come in and tell you what light bulbs you should be buying or should not be buying…that’s ludicrous.”

Noggle began collecting incandescent bulbs in 2008 after writing about the subject.

“It was a matter of going into the local hardware or home improvement store and picking up a 24 pack every time I was in,” Noggle explained. “It was 20 dollars, so 20 dollars every couple of weeks to kind of bank them up — because someday they’re going to be outlawed.”

Noggle, who has since moved and stopped stockpiling incandescent bulbs, even got his mother doing it. When “she passed away in 2009,” he said, “my brother inherited her house and enough light bulbs — a complete storage cabinet full of them — that will … keep his family quite lit up with incandescents for quite some time.”

Alexis Levinson