Will it be lights out for Obama’s bulb standards?

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Department of Energy document suggesting a possible rollback of lightbulb standards has sparked outrage among promoters of energy efficiency.

The internal document that was posted for a short time on the DOE website last month says the department’s legal justification for rules published on the eve of President Trump’s 2017 inauguration “misconstrued existing law.”

The document said DOE would propose withdrawing language in the Obama-era rules, adding the move wouldn’t need a National Environmental Policy Act review.

Lighting manufacturers have argued that the Obama DOE failed to follow the law and erred in publishing rules the day before President Trump’s inauguration. A legal settlement last year also calls for DOE to revisit the issue.

“The stakes are huge,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director at the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), which was co-founded by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Eliminating the 2020 lightbulb standards would have severe consequences for consumers and the environment.”

The January 2017 rules would save about double the energy of any other DOE efficiency standard, according to a report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The lightbulb rule would save 27 quads of energy over 30 years, compared to 27 quads by a 2015 rule on commercial air conditioners and furnaces that was touted as the biggest DOE energy saver. A quad equals a quadrillion British thermal units (Btu).

ASAP released a paper last month saying the standards would save about 740 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by midcentury, or roughly the amount emitted in 183 coal plants annually. Changing the standards, the paper warns, “assuredly would lead to lawsuits.”

The DOE regulations expanded the types of lightbulbs covered by stricter efficiency standards set to begin in January 2020. Along with traditional lightbulbs that fit in table lamps, the plan required cone-shaped bulbs, reflector lamps, decorative lights and other types of bulbs to meet the 2020 efficiency level.

That level was set by a “backstop” in a 2007 energy bill requiring all regulated bulbs to meet an efficiency threshold of 45 lumens per watt, deLaski said.

The 2020 standard can only be met now by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and coiled compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), at least with current technology. Incandescents — the model associated with Thomas Edison’s traditional lightbulb — fall short. Halogen incandescents still make up about 40 percent of the market, according to industry data.

Many say the rules will make LEDs the bulb of choice since lighting manufacturers also have moved away from CFLs, partly because of concerns about mercury contamination.

The idea of everything from chandelier lights to ceiling bulbs having to move to LEDs angered the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), which sued DOE last year.

NEMA charged, among other things, the 2017 regulations covered models in odd shapes and strayed far from the intent of Congress.

In a statement last year, the trade group said DOE “flipped Congress’ intent on its head and mistakenly concluded that its job was to eliminate the energy-efficient halogen incandescent lightbulb rather than determine whether a higher efficiency standard for those bulbs could be economically justified and technologically feasible.”

It also sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry saying it was “most troubling” that the final rules included lighting that it said Congress specifically excluded.

The trade group included drawings of newly regulated bulbs, saying many of them don’t fit into the same sockets as standard incandescent bulbs and “are not used to satisfy the same lighting applications.”

NEMA said it “remains to be determined” if the 45-lumen-per-watt standard would take effect in 2020.

At the time, the group said that different types of lightbulbs — LEDs, CFLs and incandescents — should have separate standards, so there’s not a one-size-fits-all efficiency rule for all technologies. Separate standards would mean that traditional incandescent bulbs would not have to meet the stricter 2020 efficiency levels (Greenwire, May 5, 2017).

NEMA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘Almost a sure thing’

Last year, DOE and the trade group settled the lawsuit. The agreement called for DOE to propose new rules this year and stated that the department’s review of the issue could “result in a reassessment” of the assumptions behind the January 2017 language.

DOE spokeswoman Kelly Love said, “The department does not comment on ongoing rulemakings beyond what is publicly available in the Unified Agenda published twice a year.”

The legal agreement set a path for DOE to set an LED-only standard and allow the department to not apply the “backstop” to incandescents, according to deLaski.

Environmentalists say a rollback would violate a backsliding provision in federal law preventing new standards from being weaker or narrower than existing ones. The 2017 rules expanding the types of regulated bulbs and the backstop itself are a done deal, they say.

The brief from ASAP pointed out that attorneys general can step in to enforce federal law if DOE alters the earlier language.

Noah Horowitz, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there are efficient LED versions of the newly regulated lighting.

“Why on earth would the government get in the way of progress and work to preserve the more than 125-year-old energy wasting incandescent?” he said. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

Some segments of the lighting industry have disagreed and warned of product shortages if incandescents are phased out too fast.

In its letter to Perry, NEMA said the market is transitioning to more efficient lighting on its own.

“The department does not need to create a new problem that the market can solve in an orderly manner while achieving significant energy savings,” the group said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget currently is reviewing a rule on energy conservation standards for lightbulbs. It’s unclear what’s in that rule, but there’s speculation it could be the “withdraw” language outlined in the document posted on DOE’s website.

Regardless, the settlement between DOE and NEMA means the issue is expected to be addressed this year.

The document posted on DOE’s website was a categorical exclusion form that preludes a proposed rule or action.

Fred Wagner, a partner with Venable LLP, said the form on NEPA doesn’t automatically mean that DOE will move forward with the proposed action, in this case a withdraw of the earlier lightbulb language. Yet it’s likely, he said.

“In my experience, when an agency declares a CE [categorical exclusion] for a rulemaking sort of action, it is almost a sure thing that it will move forward with that action,” Wagner said.