DOE plan sparks lightbulb war

Source: Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, March 11, 2019

When Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Daniel Simmons goes to Home Depot, he is struck by what he called the future of lighting in America.

“The future is LED,” he said, referring to highly efficient light-emitting diodes. “The future is greater energy efficiency in lighting.”

But last week at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, he confirmed that the projected phaseout of the pear-shaped incandescent bulbs will not happen as quickly as originally thought. Those iconic bulbs burn out up to 25 times faster than LEDs.

Simmons said a plan to require higher-efficiency bulbs in January 2020 would not kick in as outlined in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, because past congressional action prevented DOE from carrying out the legislative text.

The 2007 law “requires us to first make an assessment,” he said. “We were forbidden from doing that through an appropriations rider for years.”

While Simmons blames past congressional policy riders for the delay, Democrats are blaming the Trump administration.

In some ways, the political fight over lightbulbs comes down to a predictable partisan dichotomy: Republicans tend to champion the free market, with some past lawmakers calling for new bulbs in congressional offices to be replaced with old incandescent ones. Democrats tend to embrace government-mandated efficiency standards.

The descendants of Thomas Edison have even chimed in, saying their great-grandfather always valued scientific improvements, according to comments given to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The technology changes,” said Robert Wheeler, Edison’s great-grandnephew. “Embrace it.”

Efficiency battles have always been there, but in recent weeks, the lightbulb wars have turned on again. Last week, a routine DOE hearing at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy had more than 100 people around the country tune in, an unusually high number for such proceedings, according to analysts.

The hearing was held because the Trump administration is in the process of rescinding Obama-era standards that would have extended higher efficiency levels to certain types of bulbs such as the circular bulbs found in bathroom vanities (Greenwire, Aug. 8, 2018).

The Trump administration disagreed with the Obama-era rule that would have covered a range of bulbs, amounting to some 2.7 billion bulbs sold throughout the country. The regulatory process is still underway. Public comments are due April 12.

All lighting in the United States used 232 billion kilowatt-hours last year, making up 6 percent of total electricity consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But different interpretations of the 2007 language have created a running dispute about what lawmakers had intended DOE to do about bulbs. That law called for regulated bulbs to meet an efficiency threshold of 45 lumens per watt, a standard that can only be met currently by LEDs and coiled compact fluorescents.

‘Ugly’ politics

Environmentalists say the law stated that pear-shaped bulbs must be phased off shelves by 2020. That would cut greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers money because newer bulbs last much longer and use less energy.

Yet the lighting industry argued the law’s intent was more ambiguous and that over time the marketplace would eliminate inefficient sources.

Yesterday, Democrats pressed Simmons about what they charged was an efficiency “backsliding.” Research by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project shows the 2020 standard would save the average household $180 by 2025.

Simmons, who heads EERE, has tried to steer clear of politics, which he has said can get “ugly.” At a recent Alliance to Save Energy event, he said it is “very much my mission to remove as much politics as possible.”

Yesterday, he championed consumer choice. He rebuffed the notion that American families were harmed by having more bulbs on the shelves. And he noted the cost of LEDs has dropped 90 percent in a decade.

“If you go to Home Depot, you will see where the lighting industry is headed,” Simmons said, referring to the abundance of greater-efficiency bulbs such as LEDs and their organic counterpart, OLEDs.

Today, advocates estimate that about a billion incandescent bulbs remain in sockets throughout the country. But the exact number is unknown. Many households stockpile products that could soon be banned. The old bulbs are cheaper at the store but cost consumers more money in the long run because they have to be replaced more frequently, environmentalists say.

Exactly where incandescent bulbs are made is also a matter of dispute. Industry sources say most are manufactured in the United States in factories that also make some LEDs. They believe incandescents will be off the shelves soon enough; it just might not be Jan. 1, 2020.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, rebut the argument that the new standards hurt American jobs and argue that a majority of incandescent bulbs are made out of the country in China, Mexico and Hungary.

Legal battle looming

In recent years, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association sued over the Obama administration’s rule that would require a wide variety of bulbs to meet higher efficiency standards. It and others said the Obama-era plan strayed far from the intent of Congress. The case settled, and DOE agreed to re-examine the regulations, prompting the recent proposed rule.

Now, energy efficiency advocates are gearing up to sue over the fact that incandescent bulbs will still be sold in 2020.

“They are breaking the law,” said Andrew deLaski of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. “We are very confident that it is illegal.”

Noah Horowitz at NRDC added that Europe has phased out its traditional bulbs. “If the proposed goes forward, the U.S. is going to likely be the dumping ground for these incandescents and halogens that can no longer be sold in Europe,” he said.

In theory, DOE could still adopt a new standard this year. But Simmons’ remarks yesterday all but solidified that that would not happen.

And sources say retailers are already starting to buy bulbs for 2020.

For now, everyone agrees that more efficient lighting is the future on shelves and in homes. But not everyone agrees how soon the United States should get there.