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Credit: Mckibillo

Some of the most thoughtful dissent on the switch to new lighting energy standards in the U.S. emanates from the quietest place on Earth. That place is the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, which was awarded the title by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005. From his quiet room, Lab founder Steven J. Orfield insists rather loudly that contemporary U.S. green-building standards in general—and lighting standards in particular—are bad for buildings and the people who work in them.

Orfield, 63, who specializes in research and testing for acoustics, lighting, and design in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, is characteristically blunt with his take on the central problem. “For the last 20 years,” Orfield says, “lighting has been co-opted by the energy movement.”

Orfield holds the view that the new federal standards designed to make interior lighting more energy efficient, rules that begin phasing in next year, were created without giving much thought to the central mission of lighting: helping people see. Not that Orfield is making common cause with Republicans in Congress, who proposed a repeal of the new standards as one of many stands that culminated in the recent debt-ceiling debate. But Orfield bluntly asks: “If it hadn’t been for the law, would anybody have gotten rid of incandescents?”

For everyday consumers, those warm, bright 100-watt Edison-style bulbs will begin to disappear from store shelves next year. Production phaseouts will eliminate 75-watt bulbs starting in January 2013, and 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs by January 2014. News reports suggest that despite promised savings, consumers are reluctant to give up their incandescents. Anecdotes of consumer hoarding are legion; a Boston Globe story has it that sales of the old-fashioned bulbs are up between 10 percent and 20 percent over last year. Compact fluorescents (CFLs) are seen as overpriced, dim, and unreliable. Bright light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are warmer and long-lasting but even more expensive than CFLs.

Passed in 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act raised howls from Congressional Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and oil companies. But there was remarkable consensus and industry buy-in on the part of light-bulb manufacturers and electric utilities. The bill was supported by the Alliance To Save Energy, an industry group backed by utilities, manufacturers, and trade associations representing architects, lighting professionals, and engineers. Since the passage of the law, at least 119 U.S. utilities have offered rebates to consumers for switching to light bulbs that comply with Energy Star standards.

There’s not much dispute on the need for more energy-efficient lighting. The projected savings are enormous, both in terms of energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a switch to solid-state lighting would generate $120 billion in savings over 20 years, obviate 246 million tons of carbon emissions, and lower by one-fourth the total wattage of electrical power used for lighting. Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics published a study that suggested that a switch from incandescent to LED lighting across commercial, residential, and government users could generate savings of 92.2 terawatt-hours (one terawatt being equal to 1 billion kilowatts) per year. In a country rocked by the recent nuclear crisis, solid-state lighting holds out the promise of reducing total national energy consumption by 9 percent—equivalent to the electrical output of 13 nuclear plants.

“It’s a great idea to get more lumens per watt,” Orfield says. But he also says that the move to reject incandescent light in favor of the alternatives has been “a complete disaster.” Sustainability, he argues, is about reuse. Retrofitting for incandescent lighting has resulted in discarding millions of good fixtures without achieving the goal of better lighting. And performance doesn’t have a central place in the debate. “Incandescent lighting is a really high quality of lighting,” Orfield says. “Other technology should do at least as well.”

Interior designer Christopher Budd agrees. He’s a managing principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Studios Architecture, who has worked with Orfield Laboratories on projects including the Olmsted County Human Services Building in Rochester, Minn. Budd says that fluorescent-lighting technology has vastly improved, but it’s not at the level of the “comfortable yellow light of the incandescent, which hides a myriad of sins.” He sees the regulations as having been imposed about five years ahead of them being practicable. When energy was cheap, designers and architects were “comfortable with overlighting every single space,” he says. As energy costs climb and builders are given incentives to save on energy costs, “we won’t have the energy for overlighting.”

Serendipitously, low light is part of the answer to the problem of institutional lighting, according to Orfield. Typically, lighting vendors recommend light levels of 30 to 50 footcandles for an open-plan office, and higher for industrial and manufacturing settings. But footcandle meters used to measure interior lighting aren’t designed to separate useful light from glare. This is a source of frustration for Orfield and others who promote designing for the seated building occupant. Glare off of work surfaces, walls, floors, and from fixtures is a big part of what creates discomfort among office workers—and fitting long fluorescents into recessed fixtures is a common source of glare. Improvements in fluorescents to reduce flickering and buzzing have resulted in higher-intensity lights, typically fitted in symmetrically placed ceiling troffers—brighter and much less well shielded.

Orfield’s laboratory research has shown him that when you expose study participants to different lighting situations, they prefer lower light levels and higher light quality. People generally read by about 1 to 5 candle feet of light. Office lighting could be designed much the same way. “You could cut everyone’s light bill in half by putting lighting only where it needed to be,” Orfield says.

When he was working on a consulting job involving rethinking a downtown lighting plan for Minneapolis, Orfield and his colleagues tried to find out how other cities gathered feedback from citizens. “Not one city on our list of 10 or 12 did any glare evaluation, except by asking people how they liked it,” Orfield says. “Opinions have no predictive value.” Typically, lighting studies are the product of focus groups, which “force you to develop an opinion, whether you have one or not.”

Orfield’s complaints about improving lighting echo the critics of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system: These standards neglect to measure performance, he says. “If you lose 5 percent productivity to save 40 percent energy, you’ve lost millions,” he said.

But the energy and efficiency savings are more dramatic than that, says Allyson Schmutter, senior communications associate for the Alliance To Save Energy. The low price of an incandescent is misleading, she says, given rising energy prices and the negative externalities associated with environmental harm—plus the cost of replacing bulbs frequently. Nevermind that newer alternatives to incandescents are more efficient: Their steeper up-front costs will fall as their market share rises. And halogen incandescents—which are not prohibited—are more efficient but every bit as warm.

Republicans in Congress were beaten back in their efforts to pass a stand-alone bill repealing the light-bulb provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act. A move to keep the world safe for 100-watt incandescents may come in the form of a policy rider tacked on to a larger bill later this year. And Texas has already challenged the federal mandate by passing a law exempting incandescent bulbs made and sold in state.

In keeping with our divided government, the U.S. Department of Energy just awarded the North American division of Philips the $10 million L Prize for developing an energy-efficient replacement for the 60-watt bulb. The new LED bulb, which offers energy efficiency in excess of 90 lumens per watt, is expected to retail for about $40—the cost of 40 old-fashioned Edison bulbs, depending on how you look at it.