Seeing the light

Posted 1/8/20

As one of its last and perhaps most irrational deregulatory actions of 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last month that it would not proceed with implementation of efficiency standards …

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Seeing the light


As one of its last and perhaps most irrational deregulatory actions of 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last month that it would not proceed with implementation of efficiency standards for incandescent and halogen light bulbs. Mandated in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), the standards gave manufacturers more than a decade to make light bulbs more energy efficient.  The EISA, which updated the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, set a deadline for the transition by including a backstop requirement that by 2020, conventional pear-shaped light bulbs, the kind used in most household lamps and ceiling fixtures, would meet an energy use standard of 45 lumens per watt (LPW) of energy consumed. The legislation also required the Department of Energy to develop efficiency standards for the specialty bulbs that were exempted from the 45-LPW requirement, such as those used in track lighting and recessed-ceiling lights, globe-shaped bulbs used as vanity lights, and candle-flame chandelier bulbs. 

In the 12 years since EISA was passed, LED technology has come into its own, with lamps for almost every application, including dimmable bulbs and lights in a range of warm and cool color temperatures. The cost has dropped dramatically: the bulb I paid $7 for five years ago now retails for $1.35, compared to $1.03 for an incandescent that produces a comparable lighting level. And it will last much longer—25,000 hours versus 1,200 hours for an incandescent bulb—and use 85 percent less electricity over that lifetime of use. 

Of course, energy-cost savings vary depending on the price of electricity where you live. Using a $0.10/kWh average cost of electricity and my local big-box store price of $1.03 for an incandescent 60 Watt bulb and $1.35 for a 60-watt equivalent LED (which actually uses 8.5 watts), I calculated that it would require 21 incandescent bulbs to illuminate 25,000 hours at a cost (with electricity) of $171.63 versus $22.60 for one LED bulb (with electricity) to light up the same number of hours. Depending on the number of lights in your home, the cost differential is significant.

While the Department of Energy says they performed a cost study to justify scrapping the standard, none of the benefits described above entered into the DOE’s decision because, astoundingly, the agency’s study focused exclusively on the potential cost of creating an incandescent bulb that could meet the 45 lumens per watt threshold, willfully ignoring the existence of LED lights that surpass that standard for a minimally higher up-front cost.  Based on this false premise, the DOE’s economic analysis concluded that consumers would have to pay an additional 300 percent for light bulbs if the standards were enacted. The study is little more than a preposterous fake-out.

It’s difficult to imagine why the DOE is so determined to scuttle the EISA standard, other than a general aversion to energy efficiency.  Hard-line, anti-regulatory types can’t claim they are undoing another one of President Obama’s much-despised executive orders, since EISA was passed as a bipartisan act of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.  And with the rapid reduction of prices for LED light bulbs, no one can claim that phasing out incandescent and halogen bulbs places an undue burden on low income Americans—quite the reverse when energy-cost savings are taken into account. 

According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), a coalition of advocacy groups, utilities and state agencies that champion energy efficiency, incandescent light bulbs still make up about half of light bulb sales in the U.S., despite the widespread adoption of LED lights.  ASAP estimates that keeping inefficient incandescent and halogen fixtures on the market could cost Americans an additional $14 billion a year in energy bills, and require electricity generation equivalent to 30 additional 500MW power plants, with the potential to add 38 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. 

It’s up to us as consumers to see through the false logic and fake science of the DOE’s decision on light bulb efficiency, and make the choice that delvers such obvious economic and environmental benefits. 


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