Widely used but relatively inefficient light bulbs that were headed for extinction next year have won a reprieve from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
First, the department issued a final rule earlier this month that reverses efficiency standards for an estimated 3 billion light bulbs used in U.S. homes. The rule scuttles attempts to expand the definition of “general service” bulbs to include candle- and globe-shaped bulbs, candelabra bulbs, and reflector bulbs used in ceiling fixtures and track lighting, according to a summary posted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Now, those bulbs will not be covered by more stringent efficiency standards.
At the same time, the department issued a “proposed determination” that would eliminate new efficiency standards for A-lamps that were due to take effect in 2020. A-lamps are the familiar pear-shaped bulbs that account for another 3 billion bulbs used in American homes.
An analysis published last year by ACEEE and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) estimated that dropping the 2020 efficiency standards would cost consumers as much as $14 billion a year, or more than $100 per household.
In a statement, ASAP executive director Andrew deLaski said, “It makes zero sense to eliminate energy-saving light bulb standards that will save households money on electricity bills and cut climate change emissions by reducing the amount of coal and gas burned in power plants.”
DeLaski said in a followup email that the upshot of the DOE actions is “weak standards for some light bulbs and no standards at all for others.” A-lamps, for example, will have to meet standards introduced in 2012 that boosted performance to halogen levels of efficiency, while requirements for reflector bulbs will vary.
“The new, 2020 standard, if allowed to take effect, would have simplified this regulatory mishmash by requiring that almost all commonly used household bulbs meet 45 [watts per lumen], a level easily met by modern LEDs, but not by incandescent products (halogen or even the most basic versions),” he wrote.
Industry trade group cheers
Light bulb efficiency rules have become a political tussle. As standards tightened, some conservatives complained they were intrusion on personal freedom, The Washington Post noted. For example, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said several years ago, “Let there be incandescent light and freedom. That’s the American way.”
The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) applauded the latest announcement from the DOE. The trade group argued that extending the definition of general service lamps to include other classes of bulbs, as a previous rule had done, was a misinterpretation of the law.
Besides, NEMA said in a statement, the move toward more efficient lighting is already well underway. LED bulbs account for roughly 70% of general service lamps now. And because of their longer life, LED and compact fluorescents lamps should account for between 80% and 84% of all general service lamps by the end of this year. “The DOE Final Rule will not impact the market’s continuing, rapid adoption of energy-saving lighting in the next few years,” the group said.
NEMA also acknowledged that manufacturers have not been able to develop incandescent bulbs that could meet the efficiency standard for A-lamps that was due to take effect in January—45 lumens of light per watt of electricity.
“Serious efforts by some lighting manufacturers to design and manufacture more efficient general service incandescent lamps in comparison to the halogen incandescent lamps that are in the market today, have failed,” Dr. David Woodward of Signify North America and current chair of the NEMA Light Source Section, said in a prepared statement.
One problem was that the bulbs didn’t last for a minimum of 1,000 hours, the service life that consumers have come to expect. [By contrast, LEDs may last 10,000 hours before they have to be replaced.] In addition to early lamp failure, the more efficient bulbs also cost too much, “making more efficient incandescent halogen products economically unjustified,” NEMA said.
Rule was about efficiency, not bulb type
Congress never picked one light bulb technology over another. That is, the law never expressly outlawed incandescent bulbs. But the efficiency standards that were to go into effect next year made it all but impossible for incandescents and halogens to stay on the market.
In a briefing paper last year, ACEEE explained that the original law passed in 2007 set up a two-step process to increase the efficiency of light bulbs over time. In the first round, which took effect in 2012, A-type lamps had to reduce power consumption by between 25% and 30% when compared to conventional incandescent bulbs.
For the second stage, the DOE was told to develop stronger standards that were to take effect in 2020. The law included a “backstop” provision that would go into effect if DOE failed to write new efficiency rules on time. That, in fact, is what happened, making 45 lumens/watt the standard beginning in January.
ACEEE estimated that the higher efficiency requirements would have saved 140 billion kWh of electricity in 2025, the equivalent of the power generated by 45 large coal-fired power plants or 25,000 wind turbines.
ACEEE added that the law bars DOE from weakening the efficiency standards. “An attempt by the Trump administration to substitute a weaker or less comprehensive standard or to simply assert that the backstop standard does not apply will almost assuredly lead to lawsuits,” the council said at the time.
DeLaski said he expected various state attorneys general as well as consumer and environmental groups would bring suit to block the DOE’s plans. Neither ACEEE nor ASAP typically gets involved but would support those who do.
-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.