Lights out for US innovation

Would you trade your flat-screen HDTV for a black-and-white set with aluminum foil rabbit ears? How about swapping your smartphone for a rotary-dial brick? 

Of course not — but that is what House Republicans would essentially have us do with our light bulbs, by eliminating minimum energy-efficiency standards put into place in a bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2007. 

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Consumer and environmental groups have joined with lighting manufacturers to denounce the move. They know that new compact florescent technology and advanced incandescent bulbs are already being produced that meet the standards in a way that creates jobs and helps consumers save $12 billion annually.

We need to have efficiency standards, because the people who buy energy-consuming appliances or devices frequently are not the same people who ultimately pay the energy bill.

A builder or a landlord might buy a washing machine, air conditioner, furnace or even a light bulb for a new home or apartment. But often he won’t focus on energy usage when making those purchases. After all, he won’t be the one paying the electricity or gas bills for those appliances. It’s the consumer who pays. 

Appliance standards help address this market failure, and move America forward, toward reducing waste in its consumption of energy, saving money for consumers and reducing pollution by cutting the number of new power plants that must be built. 

Efficiency measures once enjoyed bipartisan support. But the Republican rush to pass the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act, defeated by a vote last Tuesday, only to be resurrected on Friday, signals a different direction. 

Luddite legislation like the BULB Act is just one piece of the GOP’s war on innovation. 

The Republican budget attacks fuel-economy rules and cuts investments in oil alternatives by 70 percent in 2012 and by 90 percent over the next three years. Their 2012 spending bill specifically takes $124 million from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass, $46 million from advanced vehicle technologies and $61 million from green buildings.

In the same bill, House Republicans rammed through increased spending for technologies from the last century, including a $30 million bump for coal, oil and natural gas. Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste dump canceled by the Obama administration, gets a $28 million increase. 

This anti-innovation agenda might get cheers at Tea Party rallies, but it sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world. 

First, it tells the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to keep selling us oil, because we aren’t going to become more efficient or aggressively develop all-electric vehicles and alternative fuels. Americans export a billion dollars a day in exchange for oil, an albatross around the neck of our economic recovery. Our trade deficit just hit a three-year high, half of which was from importing oil.

Second, over the next two decades, the world will need to invest $26 trillion in order to meet our energy needs. $5.7 trillion of that will be renewable energy generation alone. This money is up for grabs, and the United States must foster a clean-energy-friendly business environment, or risk losing jobs.

In America, we are just scratching the surface on the potential for clean-energy jobs. Last week, the Brookings Institution released a report showing high-paying jobs in clean energy are on the rise, up to 2.7 million workers. 

“Cleantech” specifically added jobs twice as fast as the rest of the economy, even during the recession. With 26 percent of clean-energy jobs based in manufacturing, America could be in position for a much needed triple play: innovate, build and export.

However, the United States is not alone in the pursuit of clean-energy capital. China has pledged $738 billion to attract these jobs. In less than a decade, China has gone from manufacturing 1 percent of the world’s solar panels to nearly half — 95 percent of which are exported, creating a $15 billion solar-export market more valuable than America’s corn, beef and chicken exports combined. 

Steve Jobs said it best: “Innovation distinguishes between the leader and a follower.” Now is not the time to turn the lights out on our innovation economy. 

Markey is ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.