Is the government going to force you to buy light bulbs that cost $50?
That's just one claim from opponents of new light bulb efficiency standards. We are fact-checking several claims from the fundraising letter circulated by AmeriPAC, a conservative political action committee, and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE) Action Fund, which seeks contributions and support for a bill to repeal the light bulb efficiency standards included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
In this item, we will address the groups' claim that the law will force consumers to buy light bulbs that are significantly more expensive than conventional light bulbs sold today.
The groups contend that the law -- which is being rolled out in phases -- will "outlaw" incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs. It's a claim we rated Pants on Fire, for reasons that have an impact on this claim as well. But we'll get to that in a bit.
First, here's the wording of the claim in a letter from CDFE:
"Democrats in Congress passed legislation that raises the cost of a single light bulb to $50!"
Ron Arnold of CDFE backed up this claim with a link to a May 16, 2011, AP story about two leading light bulb makers showcasing LED bulbs that are bright enough to replace the 100 watt light bulbs that will be phased out in January -- and which were projected to cost about $50 each.
Later in its letter, the CDFE claims that "the new light bulbs will cost roughly six times the cost of the light bulbs we now use."
The letter quotes a Dec. 19, 2007, study from US News and World Report which states, "Each cone-shaped spiral CFL [compact fluorescent light] costs about $3, compared with 50 cents for a standard bulb."
There are, however, two major problems with the claims in the letter. The first, said Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, is that there are two costs to a light bulb: the front-end cost of a light bulb at the store and the cost of electricity to operate it.
The CDFE letter only considers one side of the equation -- the up-front cost.
The curly-shaped compact fluorescent light bulbs use about 75 percent less electricity than comparable incandescent bulbs and last about 10 times longer, according to an analysis by the Department of Energy. As a result, the DOE concluded, "typical CFLs can pay for themselves in less than nine months and then start saving you money each month."
That point would have been clear had the CDFE letter contained the full context of the study from US News and World Report, instead of just cherry-picking one sentence.
Here's how the fuller Q & A reads:
How do I save money, when a CFL costs six times as much as an old-fashioned bulb?
Each cone-shaped spiral CFL costs about $3, compared with 50 cents for a standard bulb. But a CFL uses about 75 percent less energy and lasts five years instead of a few months. A household that invested $90 in changing 30 fixtures to CFLs would save $440 to $1,500 over the five-year life of the bulbs, depending on your cost of electricity. Look at your utility bill and imagine a 12 percent discount to estimate the savings.
As for LED light bulbs, it's true that some were put on the market with a $50 price tag, but the Department of Energy and most industry experts expect that price to come down dramatically as more products enter the market. Also not mentioned is that LED lights use about 20 to 25 percent of the energy of a traditional incandescent equivalent, and the LED light can last up to 25 times longer.
The other problem with the claim in the CDFE letter is that it assumes the law will limit light bulb options to either fluorescent or LED bulbs.
In fact, however, all of the major light bulb manufacturers have developed new halogen incandescent bulbs that meet the law's new efficiency standards.
We spoke to Randy Moorhead, vice president of government affairs at Philips, which began selling its latest halogen incandescent bulbs at Home Depot in April. Moorhead said the EcoVantage light bulb -- which puts off as much light as a traditional 100 watt bulb -- comes with a suggested retail price of $1.49. That's roughly triple the cost of the existing 100 watt bulbs. However, it saves about $3.36 is reduced energy costs to the customer over the 1,000-hour life of the bulb, he said. In other words, the bulb may cost $1 more up front, but saves $3.36 in energy costs -- for a net savings of $2.35. Philips also offers a premium bulb that costs even more up-front but saves more over the life of the bulb.
The Department of Energy put out a fact-sheet detailing the up-front costs and longer-term energy costs of all the light bulb options.
The data is clear, said, Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, while light bulbs that meet the new efficiency standard cost more than the traditional incandescent light bulbs, "the energy savings more than pays off the extra cost."
We asked Arnold, who penned the CDFE letter, about the potential long-term cost-savings of the more energy efficient bulbs.
"We're not obligated to tell the other guy's side of the story," Arnold said.
Perhaps not, but we think it's awfully misleading to warn about up-front cost without also mentioning the longer-term savings. The claims in the CDFE letter also assume that consumers will have no options come January when the new efficiency standards kick in. Even if you consider only the up-front cost of light bulbs, consumers would not be obligated to buy LED bulbs that cost as much as $50 apiece; nor would they be forced to purchase fluorescent alternatives that go for $3 apiece. There also are halogen incandescent bulbs for $1.49. It's true that all of these options will cost more at the store than traditional incandescent bulbs cost today. But when you factor in the cost of electricity needed to power the light bulb, they will end up costing significantly less. We rate the claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.