Remember the hue and cry about how the federal government was going to force consumers to switch from the incandescent lightbulbs we’ve used since the days of Thomas Edison to those curlicue compact fluorescent ones?
Now, just a few years later, there has been almost no political sniping as the Energy Department has proposed a lighting standard that would move the United States to a record achievement in energy efficiency.
How did lighting standards go from being a political hot potato to something that the lighting industry and American consumers embrace? It all started when Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007. The result of the law, which President George W. Bush signed, is that incandescent lightbulbs are becoming a relic of the past.
For $5 apiece or less, a far more energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulb can light an interior room or your front porch and work just as well as, if not better than, Edison’s invention while using a fraction of the electricity and lasting up to 25 years. That long life means you would no more need a dusty box of spare bulbs in the basement than you would need to keep a spare clothes dryer or washing machine on hand.
In the first phase of the new standards, Congress required that incandescent lightbulbs use 25 percent to 30 percent less energy. So the old 100-watt incandescent lightbulb has been largely replaced on store shelves with a 72-watt halogen incandescent bulb, and the old 60-watt bulb with a 43-watt version.
Halogens, which in 2007 represented a tiny share of all lightbulbs purchased, now account for about 50 percent of sales, with most of the rest made up of more-efficient LEDs or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).
For the second phase, Congress directed the Energy Department to come up with a revised lightbulb standard that would take effect in 2020. Congress also added a backstop provision that effectively required that the new standard reach at least 45 lumens (a measure of brightness) per watt. On March 17, the Energy Department issued its proposed rule.
That is where the United States starts setting new energy-efficiency records. Thanks to the second phase of minimum standards, a typical U.S. household will save about $90 annually on its electric bill, which is like getting nearly a month of free electricity every year. From 2020 to 2030, the standards will cumulatively save 1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of energy, or more than enough to meet the electricity needs of every U.S. home for one year. Those savings will translate into more than $11 billion in annual savings for consumers, the largest savings from any one energy efficiency standard ever enacted by Congress.
And what about all the political fuss of a few years ago?
Manufacturers started focusing on the more energy-efficient and long-lasting bulbs. CFL sales and manufacturing peaked and have since started to decline. In fact, GE recently became the first major manufacturer to announce it would leave the CFL market to focus on LEDs. No significant consumer backlash against LEDs occurred.
That’s no surprise. Both types of lightbulbs that were developed in response to the 2007 law – halogen incandescents and LEDs – look as good and perform as well or better than the old incandescent bulbs. Halogens, a previously underdeveloped technology, have become the most common bulb sold today. Consumers pay a little more up front, but an LED costing $5 or less lasts a long time compared with a halogen incandescent, which costs $1 to $1.50 and burns out in about a year. LEDs use about one-quarter as much electricity, and their prices keep coming down. You don’t have to be an economist to see how those savings add up fast.
Even though lighting standards were briefly a political hot potato, the reality is that the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill took strong, smart action in 2007 that unleashed a wave of spectacular innovation by the lighting industry, and the result is long-lasting, cost-saving and energy-efficient lighting that consumers are embracing.
Who says Washington never gets anything done?
Andrew deLaski is executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a coalition of consumer, environmental, energy-efficiency, utility and state government interests.