Energy efficiency requirements related to light bulbs manufactured and sold in the U.S. have been the topic of bi-partisan regulations for years. Today, revised exemptions approved last month by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for incandescent bulbs become effective, protecting the sale of certain kinds of incandescent light bulbs that would otherwise have come off the market in the coming months due to poor energy efficiency.
The U.S. Lighting Landscape
In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which mandated higher energy efficiency standards. The law included new efficiency standards for light bulbs intended to phase-out incandescent bulbs in place of LEDs (light-emitting diode) that use significantly less energy.
The manufacturing and retail market in the U.S. responded to these new requirements, anticipating a phase-out of incandescents by 2020. The U.S. lighting purchases and installations also responded. In 2018, the residential and commercial sectors used less than half as much energy to power their lights as they did in 2001.
The 2007 law mandated a minimum efficiency standard of 45 lumens per watt for the most common types of light bulbs. For context, a typical, 60-watt incandescent light bulb puts out about 15 lumens (or less) per watt. A halogen incandescent version of the same bulb is as much as 20 lumens per watt. Spiral fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are about 65 lumens per watt. LEDs can put out 80 to 100 lumens per watt.
An important aspect of the energy efficiency lighting requirements was also savings. According to CNET, a 60-watt-replacement LED will typically consume around 10 watts or less and add about $1 to the average yearly energy bill and last for 10 or more years. In contrast, a 60-watt incandescent bulb will add about $7 to the annual energy bill but will need to be replaced much sooner. Even if the incandescent is free, it still costs you more than a full-price LED after just six months of use.
Assessing the Impacts
Technically, no standards are changing yet. What the DOE is proposing is to narrow the number of bulbs to which those increased efficiency standards will apply. At the heart of the debate is whether or not the EISA’s “backstop” provision has been triggered, preventing the DOE from reducing its 45 lumens per watt for all bulbs covered by the law beginning on Jan. 1, 2020.
According a 2017 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reinstating those exemptions and taking those bulbs back out of the equation is a significant reversal.
“They offer a disproportionately large potential for energy savings since the vast majority are currently traditional or halogen incandescent lamps,” the report notes. Holding bulbs like those to the backstop standards of the Energy Independence and Security Act would yield an estimated carbon dioxide emissions reduction of 540 million metric tons by 2030, as well as energy savings that are 35% greater than the total energy consumption of the entire US residential sector in 2016.
However, lighting manufacturers do not view this latest DOE position as policy departure. “It is important to note that this was not a ‘rollback,'” says Tracy Cullen, a spokesperson for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. With a board of governors that includes executives from lighting aisle mainstays like Lutron, Leviton and Philips Lighting parent company Signify, the trade organization voiced support for the DOE’s move to limit the scope of the rising standards, and maintains that no specific standards have actually changed.
“The legal issues tied to the light bulb standards are rather complex,” according to the National Resources Defense Council’s Noah Horowitz. “It’s also quite the head-scratcher that we are just a few months from Jan. 1, 2020 and DOE still hasn’t completed its work.”
Next Steps in the Lighting Debate
According to the DOE’s September 5 proposed rulemaking, the reinstated lighting exemptions take effect on October 7. The next step is a public meeting on October 15, where the DOE will allow interested parties to share their views on issues that might affect its determinations.
Energy efficiency advocates plan to continue fighting to maintain the standards of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. According to the National Resources Defense Council, “DOE has misread the law,” says Horowitz. “NRDC will continue to oppose the Department’s unlawful rollbacks at every opportunity, including possible litigation.”
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