Among the stranger subjects that’s been caught up in the political wars raging in the United States is the lowly lightbulb. Back in the George W. Bush administration, a law was passed that set efficiency standards for a variety of lightbulbs and allowed the Department of Energy (DOE) to expand the standards going forward.
Almost immediately afterwards, legislators who apparently find efficiency a threat to the American way of life had second thoughts, and they started undermining the law’s implementation. As a result, the first real evaluation and update of the standards didn’t take place until late in Obama’s second term. Now, the Trump administration has officially thrown out the results of the work done by Obama’s DOE and has issued a rule that prevents the standards from applying to a variety of bulbs.
How in the world did we get here?
So how did lightbulbs become a political controversy? Back during the second Bush administration, bulbs were an obvious target for efficiency measures, given how poor incandescents do on those measures and due to the fact that there were promising newer technologies—compact fluorescents and LEDs—that hadn’t really put a dent in the incandescent markets. And, while individual electricity savings would be small, nationwide standards would ensure that the overall savings could be substantial. Increased efficiency on that scale has been a contributing factor to the United States’ ability to lower its total electricity use even as its economy has expanded.
As a result, lightbulb efficiency standards were written into the Energy Independence and Security Act, passed into law in 2007. Unlike many laws that become controversial, this one was remarkably reasonable. It set efficiency standards through a very simple measure: how many lumens of light ware produced per Watt of power. It focused initial standards on the bulbs with the largest percentage of the market: standard-sized screw-ins for lamps and fixtures. It also included mechanisms for reevaluating the standards and expanding them to additional types of bulbs as more efficient technology matured. Finally, the act recognized that incandescent manufacturers might find design loopholes that let them avoid the standards, so it gave the DOE the right to extend the standards to new types of bulbs.
Within a few years, however, the law had ended up stirring a public controversy. Part of this is the idea that a law banning incandescent lightbulbs fed into the conservative narrative of government overreach and intrusion. (Technically, incandescents would be allowed if they could be made to meet the standards, a subtlety that was often ignored.) And part of it seems to be the general attitude among conservatives that anything environmentally friendly is good for their political opponents and has to be resisted (“wrecking the planet to own the libs” appears like it may be a thing).
As a result, riders were attached to budget bills for several years that prevented the DOE from spending any money to evaluate lightbulb efficiency standards. By the time budget deals eliminated these riders, we were into Obama’s second term. The DOE didn’t complete its evaluation to 2017. At the time, the law seems to have been effective: LED bulbs had come down dramatically in price, and the ability to manufacture them at large scales was well established. As a result, the DOE issued a rule that would extend the standards to a variety of additional bulb types that had not originally been targeted.
That was then, this is now
As with most regulations generated by the Obama administration, the 2017 DOE rule on lightbulb efficiency was targeted by the Trump administration. After proposing a rule and soliciting public comment on it, the new rule was issued yesterday. It essentially undoes everything decided by the Obama administration.
The 2017 rules had required a number of additional lighting types to meet efficiency standards, including three-way bulbs, various types of bulbs used in construction and industrial settings, smaller bulbs such as those used in candelabra-style fixtures, and high-output lamps. With the new rules issued by the Trump administration, none of these would be regulated.
In doing so, the administration is specifically following the wishes of various lightbulb manufacturers, who presumably still have viable production facilities dedicated to churning out incandescents. Opposing the changes were a collection of state attorneys general, environmental organizations, and a few electrical utilities. The latter are from California, which has set aggressive renewable production targets that will be easier to hit if electricity usage continues to drop.
The DOE’s logic in supporting this decision can be a bit tough to follow. Even though the DOE followed the law and re-evaluated the efficiency standards, the DOE claims that its Secretary never made the official determination that the standards needed to be amended. In the absence of that determination, there’s no requirement that it modify the standards by any specific date—even though the standards had already been modified.
Separately, the groups objecting to this decision notes that the law indicates that the DOE shouldn’t drop any efficiency standards below 45 lumens/Watt. By excluding these bulbs, they argue, the DOE is essentially setting the standard to zero. But the DOE counters that by saying it’s only determining if the bulbs are subject to standards, not actually setting any.
Lawsuits on the way
The law seemingly anticipated these sorts of impasses by directing the DOE to establish standards for any bulbs that end up being used as general lighting; this would, for example, allow the DOE to start regulating different bulb formats if manufacturers started selling them as replacements for a regulated format. But in its new rule, the DOE is specifically disavowing that authority, writing “It is unlikely Congress intended that DOE have broad discretion to regulate an incandescent lamp out of existence based on an assumption that manufacturers could make and sell an LED version of the lamp.”
As a result, the DOE has declared that it will be ignoring its authority to use “convenient unregulated alternatives” as a standard to identify things that need to be regulated.
The last few paragraphs could possibly be summarized as “there are many things here that will end up getting the DOE sued.” And, given the list of organizations that opposed these changes, including a large number of states, that’s almost certain to happen.
But it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the big picture again. The original legislation appears to have been well-designed and successful: LED bulbs are now inexpensive, abundant, and remain long-lived and efficient. And yet, due to lingering animosity towards the existence of any standards at all, the Trump administration is doing its best to keep the legislation from being used to regulate the hardware it was obviously intended for.
The full text of the DOE’s decision is available here.