U.S. House Republicans on Tuesday failed to stop the enactment of new energy-saving standards for light bulbs they portrayed as yet another example of big government interfering in people’s lives.

The GOP bill to overturn the standards set to go into effect in January fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. The vote was 233-193.

The law requires manufacturers to phase in bulbs that produce the same amount of brightness with less energy.

The practical effect is that most incandescent lights – the iconic bulbs invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 – won’t make the grade. Beginning in January, most stores will stop stocking 100-watt bulbs. By 2014, 75-watt, 60-watt and 40-watt incandescents will also be phased out.

In recent months, conservative Republicans and free-market activists had rallied to repeal the law. It’s an unneeded government intrusion, they say, forcing Americans to buy unsafe compact fluorescent lightbulbs and expensive light-emitting diodes.

The outcome was of special interest in Maine, which has been among the leading states in converting to CFLs.

A seven-year-old state program uses millions of dollars from electric ratepayers to offset the retail cost of compact fluorescents. Consumers bought 2 million new bulbs through the program in the past year. They will save $5.71 on their electric bills for every dollar invested, according to Efficiency Maine Trust, which runs the program.

The move to more efficient light has been supported by Maine’s two House members, U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree. Both Democrats voted against the repeal effort.

“I find it very frustrating that Congress is even considering backward legislation that would only serve to deepen the energy crisis we are in,” Pingree said in a statement issued before the vote.

Michaud noted that the modern lights can save the average Maine household $105 a year on power bills.

“This is not the time to be repealing bipartisan energy efficiency measures. Congress should be focused on job creation, not rolling back help for Maine’s families and businesses,” Michaud said in a statement.

Had the House approved the repeal, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, it would have moved to the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The 2007 law passed with bipartisan support and was signed by President George Bush. A surge of charges and counter-charges from interest groups ranging from environmental activists to Libertarians marked the debate leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Like an incandescent bulb, the debate had generated more heat than light.

Contrary to some claims, the law won’t ban incandescent bulbs. It sets an efficiency standard that manufacturers must meet. Current technologies include halogens, CFLs and LEDs.

So far, CFLs have emerged as the best option for most homes. They use one-quarter the energy of incandescents for the same light output and last up to 10 times longer. New models come in a range of lighting colors and dimmer options. CFLs remain more expensive than standard light bulbs, but costs have fallen significantly in recent years as factories gear up.

Advocates say the conversion will not only save consumers money, but it will also eliminate the need for 33 new coal-fired power plants by 2020. To dramatize the benefits, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a statement Monday opposing the repeal effort, with quotes from four direct descendants of Thomas Edison.

But groups fighting what they dubbed the “light bulb ban” asked their members to contact Congress.
The Washington, D.C., advocacy group Freedom Action launched a national Internet campaign called FreeOurLight.org. Americans For Limited Government released a poll showing 58 percent of Americans oppose the law.

“The federal government has no power to micromanage the decisions of the American people, and to force them by dictate to use unsafe, mercury-laced bulbs,” said Bill Wilson, the group’s president.

Highlighting the safety hazard, the Heartland Institute estimated that the mercury contained in CFLs presents a greater risk to homeowners than mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.
CFLs can release mercury if broken. But Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, ridiculed the Heartland Institute’s claims.

“Exposure to mercury only happens if and when a CFL should break,” he said. “If a homeowner exercises common sense, their risk of exposure to mercury is less than eating a tuna sandwich.”

Stoddard also noted that Maine has a first-in-the-nation CFL recycling program, through stores and municipal recycling centers. More than 11,000 CFLs were recycled in 2010, he said.

Promoting CFLs, Stoddard said, is the single most cost-effective way for Mainers to lower their energy bills. Maine directed $3 million last year to the program. It helped fund a promotion that has had a six-pack of CFLs selling for 97 cents. The 2 million CFLs purchased over the promotion period will cut electric consumption by 88 million kilowatt hours, Stoddard estimated, saving $13.5 million a year.

The phase-out of incandescent bulbs will reduce the need for Maine to continue the CFL subsidy, Stoddard said. Other products could then qualify for the program, including LEDs. LED bulbs are exceptionally long-lasting and mercury-free.

Either way, Stoddard said, there’s plenty of opportunity to introduce energy-saving bulbs in Maine. The average home has 38 electrical sockets and Maine has 500,000 homes. That adds up to 19 million sockets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or [email protected]

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