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The Conspiracy to Control the World's Electric Lighting

The story of the Phoebus Cartel, an experiment in the fine art of anti-competitive collusion.

Dan Lewis, author of the daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”) joins us Wednesdays with surprising facts about the world of business.

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Stop Living in the Past; Ditch Your Incandescent Bulbs

You wouldn’t drive a 1950s-era car if smog still poured out its tailpipe. Why use a light bulb designed in the 19th century?


New York restauranteurs these days go in for soft-lit nostalgia by hanging low-wattage bulbs above deep booths in dark-paneled rooms. Today it seems as if Republicans share this obsession, as they’ll likely vote yes on a bill that would keep in circulation light bulbs no more technically advanced than the ones Thomas Edison invented.

In 2007, a Republican Congress and a Republican president passed into law a measure that increased energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. Now Republicans are calling that measure a “ban” on incandescents, and the bill they’ll vote on today, the BULB Act, would repeal the standards on which they agreed four years back. Since the passage of the efficient bulbs law, conservatives across the country have rebelled against the standards, calling them an infringement on their rights as consumers; interior designers have joined with them over concerns that newfangled bulbs—your CFLs and your LEDs—cast "ugly" light on a well-appointed room.

Interior designers, at least, can rest easy: Incandescents aren’t disappearing from the market. Lighting companies have been selling bulbs that meet the new standards, set to take effect next year, since 2009.

But even if we were stuck with those twisty CFL bulbs that provoke such dissatisfaction, making light bulbs more efficient would be the right choice. Think about it this way: Like Edison-era incandescents, old cars have a certain aesthetic charm. But if cars depended on the same technology they did when they were first invented, we’d all have died of smog inhalation by now. Instead, beginning in the 1960s, state governments set standards for how much pollution could spill out of tailpipes. The federal government followed in 1970 with the first nationwide tailpipe emissions standard.

It’s easy to internalize the connection between pollution and auto emissions. Turn on an old car and dirty smoke comes out the rear end. When a driver turns off a car, the tailpipe emissions cease. Turn on a light bulb, however, and carbon pollution pours out of a coal-fired power plant that's miles away and out of sight. And flicking off a light switch doesn’t turn off the power plant.

If the clouds of carbon that light bulbs create were emitted from our homes, perhaps light bulb manufacturers would have had to find a way to make bulbs more efficient long ago. The bulbs that are being phased out convert 90 percent of the electricity they use into heat and only 10 percent into light. The new efficiency standards require bulbs be 30 percent more energy efficient.

The new incandescents meet that standard, but CFLs and LEDs are far ahead of it. Incandescent manufacturers have until 2020 to reach a minimum standard of 45 lumens per watt, a threshold that CFL bulbs already meet. CFL lighting may not have the quiet glow of the bulbs that the world has used for more than a century. But using even the more efficient incandescent bulb available now would be like driving a car that was manufactured in the 1970s, just after the first tailpipe emission standards came into effect—it still means dumping more carbon than is necessary into the atmosphere. The more people buy CFLs and LEDs, the sooner they’ll be casting more varied and quieter light. It’s already happening, in fact. And even if it wasn't, tastes change. In 50 years, perhaps hip New Yorkers will be flooding to restaurants lit with that certain quality of light that only 2010-era CFL bulbs can produce.

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Clever German Bypasses Light Bulb Ban with "Heatball" Space Heater

Here's an interesting way to get around a ban on incandescent light bulbs: Market them as space heaters.

Okay, this isn't very serious, but I can't resist this story. A couple of German "entrepreneurs" (or artists, maybe?) led by Siegfried Rotthaeuser figured out, at least temporarily, how to bypass the EU's ban on traditional incandescent bulbs. They started importing 75-Watt and 100-Watt bulbs from China and marketing them as space heaters. Because, after all, inefficient incandescent bulbs release 95 percent of their energy as heat, and only 5 percent as light. So Rotthaeuser actually has a pretty good point.

They call it the HEATBALL® and the clever piece of runaround marketing goes like this:

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