GE: Seeing the Light

The U.S. Congress recently passed an energy bill that requires incrementally phasing out incandescent bulbs over the next six years, beginning with 100-watt bulbs in 2012 and ending with 40-watt bulbs in 2014.

Under the new law, by 2020 all bulbs must be 70 percent more efficient than today’s models, which suggests that compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), halogens, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are likely replacements. CFLs are the most promising candidates, if only because halogens are expensive and LEDs are 3 years away from the technology needed to make them adequate substitutes. In California, plans are afoot to ban all incandescents by 2012.

Europe is way ahead of us on this curve, mandating energy efficiency in street lighting by 2008 and in households by 2009. Philips (PHG – $39.30), the largest global lighting manufacturer, recently announced that its company – and European manufacturers overall – were close to an agreement "in principle" with the European Commission’s mandate. Elsewhere, Australia set the ban for 2010, Ontario targeted 2012, and Nova Scotia set a date of 2013. Africa has similar plans, but wants to put the recycling infrastructure in place first. Greenpeace has asked India to follow suit. Merchandisers like Yahoo and Wal-Mart have joined forces with Environmental Defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and other private and government entities to launch a marketing campaign called 18Seconds that encourages people to switch to CFLs.

This is all well and good, but like many poorly conceived and rapidly executed environmental "fixes" (i.e., ethanol), CFLs pose serious potential problems. They contain mercury, a neurotoxin which acts on the central nervous system and has been linked to autism, Parkinson’s disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, chromosome damage, and birth defects – and these are just the health effects we know about. Moreover, our government doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to recycle hundreds of thousands of CFLs, or the ability to protect us when they fail. Drop a single CFL, and you can simply sweep it up, wipe it up, and dispose of it. Drop a few every year, and the problem becomes exponentially more hazardous, because mercury is a cumulative toxin. Drop a hundred thousand in a landfill and … well, you get the picture.

All participating manufacturers have promised to cap the mercury content of CFLs at 5 milligrams (mg.) under 25 watts, and 6 mg. under 40 watts. An older fever thermometer contains 500 milligrams, so the amount of mercury in CFLs is clearly small. Still, money is a tremendous motivator, and mercury can be added to CFLs either as a liquid (cheap but risky) or as a capsule (expensive and safer). Most manufacturers will probably choose liquid, maintaining caps in the interest of profitability since mercury is expensive, as well as taking shortcuts in the manufacturing process, resulting in further pollution of our air and water.

General Electric (GE – $34.52), the largest U.S. lighting manufacturer, has been criticized for a lot of things, most recently its continued attempts to develop an energy-efficient incandescent, which it says will be available in 2010. In many instances, GE is guilty of greenwashing – its trademark Ecomagination campaign has as many flaws as a Diebold voting system. But in this instance GE has a point. I am a humanist first and an environmentalist second. I support sustainability, which is defined as "meeting the needs of earth’s current inhabitants without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". If incandescents can be made efficient, even if some light quality and output is sacrificed in the process, I’m all for them. Loading up our homes and landfills with toxic mercury is not a sustainable solution.

Disclosure: I don’t own GE stock.

Site disclaimer.