Goodbye Inefficient Light Bulbs, You Are No Longer Needed
Environmental Policy Brief #143 | By: Jacob Morton | May 9, 2022
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For more than a century, incandescent light bulbs have illuminated our homes, offices, factories, and businesses. Their proliferation changed the way we design buildings and even led to the lengthening of the average workday. Their legacy, however, is coming to an end. On April 26th, the Biden administration announced two new rules setting stricter energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that will effectively phase out incandescent bulbs beginning on January 1, 2023.
The new regulations announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) will require manufacturers to produce bulbs that create at least 45 lumens per watt, the metric used to determine how much visible light is emitted vs. the amount of electricity used. LED lights are much more efficient, estimated to last as much as 50 times longer than incandescent bulbs while using a fraction of the electricity. A typical 60-watt incandescent bulb uses as much as 12 times the electricity as a 5-watt LED that provides the same amount of light. And, at 3 hours of use per day, an incandescent bulb would be good for 1 to 3 years, while a typical LED would last at least 10 years. Further, the DOE reports that the average cost of LED bulbs has dropped by 90 percent since 2008.
According to the DOE, when these rules come into effect next year, “Americans will collectively save $3 billion a year on their utility bills.” Additionally, the new standards are estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next 30 years. The DOE says, “that is an amount equivalent to the emissions generated by 28 million homes in one year.”
The new rules set forth by the Biden administration are not original and would have actually gone into effect back on January 1, 2019, as required under a law passed in 2007 during the George W. Bush administration. However, the Trump administration halted that effort, appealing to requests from some of the world’s largest incandescent light bulb manufacturers. Then secretary of energy, Dan Brouillette, who was a former auto lobbyist, said the Trump administration had chosen “to protect consumer choice by ensuring that the American people do not pay the price for unnecessary overregulation from the federal government.”
Brouillette said the rule was unnecessary because innovation and technology were already “increasing the efficiency and affordability of light bulbs without federal government intervention.” Similarly, back in 2019, The National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the trade group for manufacturers of light bulbs, had said that government requirements for greater bulb efficiency were unnecessary because Americans were already buying more efficient bulbs and that the regulations “[would] not impact the market’s continuing, rapid adoption of energy-saving lighting.”
Despite those previous claims, research shows that lower-end retailers like dollar stores or convenience shops serving primarily low-income communities continue to sell traditional or halogen incandescent bulbs, whereas stores in more affluent communities have shifted to exclusively selling LEDs. A 2018 study by the University of Michigan found that LED bulbs are not only less available in poorer areas, “they also tended to cost on average $2.50 more per bulb than in wealthier communities.”
Today, some light bulb manufacturers still argue that moving away from incandescent bulbs too quickly would damage their bottom line and create a glut of incandescent bulbs that have already been manufactured but can no longer be sold, leading to more waste in our landfills.
For the world’s largest manufacturers, such as Signify, the Dutch multinational company that makes Philips light bulbs, profit margins for incandescent lights are significantly higher than for LEDs, partly because their investments in manufacturing equipment for incandescent bulbs have already been paid off and there is little competition among manufacturers. Meanwhile the LED market has seen the rise of new manufacturers and significantly more competition.
Continuing to produce and market incandescent bulbs is thus a lucrative strategy that manufacturers, like Signify, do not want to see disappear. A closer look at Signify’s financial reports reveals that profit margins for its incandescent lights are significantly higher than for its LED’s. According to reporting by the New York Times, “in its corporate reports, Signify has called extracting value from its conventional lighting a “cash engine” for the company.”
By contrast, Signify and other companies that continue to produce and sell incandescent bulbs in the US, have already adhered to a phaseout of incandescent bulbs in the European Union, beginning back in 2017. According to recent data, “about 30 percent of standard bulbs sold in the United States in 2020 — excluding California, which phased out most halogen and incandescent light bulbs in 2020 — were still incandescent or halogen bulbs.” In the European Union, that percentage has been close to zero since 2018. With President Biden’s climate agenda stalled in Congress, new regulations, such as these, are intended to restore many of the environmental rules rolled back by Donald Trump, as the Biden administration continues to push for bolder action to limit climate change.
In a statement regarding the new rules, Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, says, “The lighting industry is already embracing more energy efficient products, and this measure will accelerate progress.” Similarly, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), the trade group for manufacturers of light bulbs, has said the shift to LED lighting that is already underway has been “an unqualified success.” NEMA’s vice president of public affairs, Spencer Pederson, says the group “appreciates the administration’s recognition of the challenges industry faces in complying with the rule and the adoption of a more manageable compliance time frame.”
However, while environmental and sustainable energy groups praised the new rules, many argue that the regulatory timeline gives manufacturers too much time to move away from an outdated technology when a suitable and affordable replacement is already widely available. Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, argues, “LEDs have become so inexpensive that there’s no good reason for manufacturers to keep selling 19th-century technology that just isn’t very good at turning electrical energy into light.”
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Most traditional incandescent bulbs have already largely disappeared from the market, but the halogen-filled types, which are not much more efficient, yet are often marketed as environmentally friendly, are still easy to find in most stores. Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, says, “Many of the energy-guzzling bulbs have labels claiming they save energy, and it’s infuriating. Responsible chains ought to get them off their shelves as soon as possible and certainly by the end of this year.”
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American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE.org) – Through research, education, and advocacy, ACEEE advances the efficient use of energy to rapidly and equitably spur economic well-being and combat climate change.
Appliance Standards Awareness Project (appliance-standards.org) – ASAP organizes and leads a broad-based coalition effort that works to advance, win, and defend new appliance, equipment, and lighting standards that cut emissions that contribute to climate change and other environmental and public health harms, save water, and reduce economic and environmental burdens for low- and moderate-income households.
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Erickson, J. (2019, May 28). Energy injustice? cost, availability of energy-efficient lightbulbs vary with poverty levels. University of Michigan News. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://news.umich.edu/energy-injustice-cost-availability-of-energy-efficient-lightbulbs-vary-with-poverty-levels/
Schwartz, J. (2019, December 20). Trump administration blocks energy efficiency rule for light bulbs. The New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/climate/trump-light-bulb-rollback.html
Tabuchi, H. (2022, April 26). New rules will end the century-long run of classic light bulbs. The New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/26/climate/biden-incandescent-led-light-bulb.html
Touchberry, R. (2022, April 27). Biden to ban inefficient incandescent light bulbs, reversing trump-era rule. The Washington Times. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2022/apr/27/biden-ban-inefficient-incandescent-light-bulbs-rev/?msclkid=70337127cfa311ec926dd395b02d7789
U.S. Department of Energy. (2022). General Service Lamps. Appliance Standards Rulemakings and Notices. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/appliance_standards/standards.aspx?productid=4