What Thomas Edison Would Do

Congress is debating whether to repeal a 2007 law that requires light bulbs to become more energy efficient. So people have asked me where my great-grandfather Thomas Edison would come down on the issue.
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Congress is debating whether to repeal a 2007 law that requires light bulbs to become more energy efficient. So people have asked me where Thomas Alva Edison would come down on the issue, since he invented the incandescent light bulb 132 years ago.

My great-grandfather would be all for keeping intact the Energy Independence and Security Act. The law requires light bulbs of all types to be at least 25 percent more energy efficient by 2012. To Edison, that would have been no big deal.

He would have immediately embraced the challenge of reducing the power usage of the incandescent light bulb -- and regarded it as a great opportunity to offer consumers a better and more ecologically sound product. Edison understood that incandescent lights burned up a lot of power. The present bulb, more or less unimproved for more than a century, still uses up to 90 percent of the incoming electricity as heat wasted in making the filament incandescent, not in making ''light'' as such.

As an inventor, Edison would have no interest in turning back the legislative clock. The wizard of Menlo Park dedicated himself to advancing human comfort, not freeze life as we knew it in 1879.

I know where he'd be this morning if he were still with us: in his West Orange, N.J., lab working furiously on a better bulb. And when he was done, it would be cheaper and more energy efficient. Repealing EISA won't improve anybody's life. He would have scorned the cynics who are trying to turn a technical challenge into a political football.

Moreover, my great-grandfather would be annoyed by the misleading and sometimes downright false statistics being thrown around in this controversy.

One red-herring is that an over-reaching Big Government is taking away our beloved incandescent bulb. Not true. Consumers can continue choosing from an array of more modern, energy efficient bulbs, including halogen incandescents, compact fluorescents (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs.) By the way, are you telling me that we can send a man to the moon but the entire population hasn't got one electrical engineer who can improve the heat-loss-to-incandescent ratio?

Another argument that turns out to smell fishy is the red herring that CFLs are dangerous because they contain about 3 milligrams of mercury. Before I did the math, I thought so, too.

No one should minimize mercury as a pollutant, but intelligent disposal and recycling of everyday mercury-bearing products is the best way to keep it out of the environment. Among other household products that contain more mercury include thermostats, your watch battery and, oh yes, the fillings in your teeth (unless you have switched to plastic.)

A far greater human health threat comes from the mercury spewed by electricity-generating power plants. Once the new standards take full effect in 2020, mercury emissions associated with common household lighting would be reduced by 60%. That will also eliminate about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere each year -- the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road.

The light bulb furor highlights another crucial Edison conviction. Long ago he wanted the United States to abandon oil as a primary energy source.

In fact, near the end of his life, he told Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone that he wanted America to end its reliance on oil and other polluting fossil fuels and, instead, embrace clean, renewable sources of energy, especially solar power. Edison would be deeply disappointed by our inability to make more progress toward solar, wind and nuclear power that is safe and cost effective.

So Edison would strongly favor the most efficient light source that we can invent. He personally would be forging ahead to create and then market such a better product. And if that meant incandescents come in second, or third, so be it. No matter what, my great-grandfather would have welcomed with relish a brighter future for all.

Lastly, forgive my partiality to the elegant shape of my great-grandfather's bulbs. The spiral CFLs are plain ugly. But to each his own. There are plenty of alternatives on the market to choose from. Isn't that the American way?

I wonder if the misguided drive to reverse progress on light bulbs isn't part of a broader assault on our environment; if so, Edison would be appalled by it. Instead, he'd be pushing America to do more, much more, to clean up our air, water and land -- rather than trying to prevent such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency from updating public health safeguards under the Clean Air Act, as some of the congressional fish-mongers are doing.

My great-grandfather would be calling us to put politics aside and get back to doing what Americans do best -- create better mousetraps... and better light-bulbs.

Dr. David Edward Edison Sloane is a professor of English at the University of New Haven.

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