WASHINGTON — It's a bright idea: Get one of the Senate's biggest skeptics of the causes of global warming to co-sponsor legislation that encourages conservation.
So when Democrats wanted to pass a bill to phase out old-style incandescent light bulbs and require that Americans replace them with more energy-efficient models, they turned to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens for some GOP support.
The Republican senator jumped at the chance.
"Americans have improved upon nearly all of Thomas Edison's inventions, and this legislation will encourage a new generation of innovators to advance his greatest accomplishment, the light bulb," Stevens said in a statement. "Energy efficient lighting will save consumers billions in energy costs and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
If the bill passes and Americans gradually switch out bulbs over the next seven years, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee estimated that annual energy savings would reach $6 billion.
Energy-efficient bulbs could save more than 65 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a House of Representatives co-sponsor of the bill. That's the equivalent of 80 coal-fired power plants, Upton said.
"This is more than just one light bulb at a time," he said at a Senate energy committee hearing on Wednesday.
The legislation requires that light bulbs be 300 percent more efficient by 2020, said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., another House sponsor of the legislation. The bill's sponsors also would like light-bulb manufacturers to find a way to keep mercury from being released in the manufacture and disposal of the new energy-efficient bulbs.
They're also working on encouraging manufacturers to make the newer bulbs in the United States, Harman said. And they would like to see the federal government, the world's biggest buyer of light bulbs, switch to more efficient lighting.
The legislation would require that 40-, 60-, 75- and 100-watt incandescent light bulbs be phased out by 2014. They would be replaced with the so-called "curlicue" compact fluorescent light bulbs and other more energy-efficient forms of lighting that are being developed.
Right now, the U.S. is the single-largest market for incandescent bulbs and accounts for nearly a third of the global market, said Paul Waide, a senior policy analyst with the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Were people around the world to stop using old-style bulbs by 2012, it would save an estimated 5.5 percent of global power demand — which would drastically cut down carbon emissions.
Cuba has already switched, Waide said, and Canada is considering phasing out old-style bulbs by 2012. In Britain, government subsidies bring the cost of energy-efficient bulbs down to the same level as incandescent ones.
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower is lit by energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs.
But not everyone likes the legislation, in part because energy-efficient bulbs are often more expensive than the older, less efficient models, even though they last longer.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that advocates limited government, criticized the proposal as a "costly scheme" that forces consumers to buy more expensive lighting.
It's "yet another example of global warming alarmism being used to justify regulating the most minute aspects of our lives," said the group's general counsel, Sam Kazman.
But in general, the bill has few detractors and bipartisan support. The country's major light bulb manufacturers were brought into discussions about how to phase out the older bulbs, which helped, said Kyle Pitsor, vice president of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.
"This is where the greatest energy savings can be obtained on a national scale," he said.