Only 10 percent of the electricity used by traditional incandescent light bulbs produces light. The rest ends up as heat. Basically, they are warming devices that keep us from bumping into the furniture.

Compact fluorescent bulbs and light-emitting diodes have their drawbacks. They are more expensive than incandescent bulbs and they aren’t right for every lighting situation, but costs are coming down and their lighting quality is improving. Most importantly, because they use less electricity and last longer than old-fashioned bulbs, they pay back their higher prices many times over by lowering electric bills.

Despite the cost-savings, people have been slow to adopt the more efficient bulbs, so the federal government stepped in to speed the transition by setting standards that started going into effect this year. That action has so outraged some anti-government patriots that they are hoarding enough incandescent bulbs to last their lifetimes, asserting their God-given right to waste money.

Which would be fine if the rest of us didn’t have to pay higher electric rates as utilities keep building more power plants to meet rising demand, to say nothing of the pollution that the plants produce. Improving efficiency is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to meet energy demand. Government standards for lighting and electric appliances are as important in improving our lives as better gas mileage requirements for vehicles.

Indiana recognized the value of government support for energy efficiency three years ago when our utility regulatory commission ordered utilities to reduce demand in incremental steps over 10 years. Some investor-owned utilities have never been happy about this mandate and they may try to convince the legislature this year to overturn the commission’s order.

That would be a big mistake. Rather than relaxing the requirement, we should make it stronger. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which oversees electric power use in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, says that efficiency can meet 85 percent of increased electricity demand in that region over the next 20 years. That’s in a part of the country that has taken efficiency seriously for some time. In Indiana, where we are just starting to get into the game, we might achieve even greater gains.

Utilities should set aggressive goals for meeting future electricity demand through efficiency. The place to start is in the 20-year plans that they submit to the regulatory commission every two years. In 2011 the Tennessee Valley Authority published a 20-year plan that calls for between 3,600 and 5,100 megawatts of savings through efficiency and shifting the timing of electricity demand. That’s the equivalent of eliminating seven to ten good-sized power plants, either by retiring existing plants or avoiding the need to build new ones.

Our utilities have never shown that kind of enthusiasm for efficiency. For example, in Duke Energy Indiana’s 2011 plan, it forecast saving only 825 megawatts by 2031.

The commission proposed a new planning rule in 2012 that opens the process to public participation. To its credit, Duke has said it will comply with the proposed rule in preparing its 2013 plan. I attended its initial public meeting in December and I was impressed by the planning staff’s apparent openness to public input. The company has scheduled three more public planning sessions this year. We’ll see if they result in higher efficiency targets in the plan it will file in November.


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