Leds May Signal Brighter Times Ahead

Environmental Policy Brief #160 | By: Todd J. Broadman | September 27, 2023

Photo taken from: hilclare.com


The Energy Department has set a new rule or minimum standard for light bulbs: a minimum standard of 45 lumens per watt.  The target of the new rule are incandescent light bulbs; those bulbs only provide 15 watts per lumen and so to not meet the 45 lumens per watt standard.  Incandescent bulbs have had a long run; they trace their origin to an 1880 Thomas Edison patent. Congress granted the Energy Department authority to regulate the energy efficiency of consumer products in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

Advances in LED technology have largely driven the change. LED stands for “light emitting diode,” a semiconductor device that converts electricity directly into light. Even without the rule, U.S. household adoption of LED bulbs between 2015 and 2020 jumped more than tenfold — from 4 percent to 47 percent. Another driver is the global Net Zero Emissions by 2050standard policy. This rule change is one of the few energy segments on track to meet that goal. According to the International Energy Agency, “although some advanced markets have introduced new regulations mandating the exclusive sale of high-efficacy LED lamps, progress in this area must be sustained to ensure that all countries sell predominantly LED technology by 2025, and with increasing efficiency to 2030, to align with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.”

Whereas the average annual operating cost of a 60-watt incandescent bulb is $8.74, the operating cost of an equivalent 13-watt CFL is $1.89.  Expected utility bill savings may tally to nearly $3 billion per year. Only roughly 5 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb produces light; the remaining 95 percent or so is lost as heat. LED generate almost no heat and use up to 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs while lasting up to 25 times longer, according to the Energy Department.

The change to LEDs can be traced back to the George Bush administration of 2007 and the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act which required bulbs in the 40 and 100 watt range be more energy efficient. The further restrictions placed on incandescent bulbs by the Obama administration were removed by Donald Trump who remarked with typical insensitivity for environmental concerns, “They took away our light bulb … I want an incandescent light. I want to look better, OK? I want to pay less money to look better. Does that make sense? You pay much less money, and you look much better.”


The light bulb has been with us for almost two centuries. In 1835, the first constant electric light was demonstrated in Britain. Thomas Edison’s contribution was to improve the filament — first testing carbon, then platinum, before finally returning to a carbon filament. By October 1879, Edison’s team had produced a light bulb with a carbonized filament of uncoated cotton thread that could last for 14.5 hours. They continued to experiment with the filament until settling on one made from bamboo that gave Edison’s lamps a lifetime of up to 1,200 hours — this filament became the standard for the Edison bulb for the next 10 years.

There are those in Congress and others who would disregard these advances. The Republican National Committee said the move was emblematic of “Biden’s unhealthy obsession.” Another Republican Party official criticized that, “The Biden administration’s government overreach continues.” Other critics side with Trump’s sense of aesthetics, like writer Joseph Massey, “I often stay up late at my desk, and the warm glow of the lamp is like company as I read and write. Ugh. There are people in power who are dedicated to sucking all joy out of the world.” Paul McLellan has been in the bulb business as a retailer for over five decades and had a more pragmatic perspective: “The move was better for the environment but kind of bad for sales. We’ve been trying to get the word out there, and nobody is talking about it.” He claims his 15 call-center employees have become lighting therapists for distressed callers overnight.

LEDs emit a brighter, bluer light in shorter wavelengths. They also rapidly flicker on and off, which is referred to as temporal light modulation. For most people, this flickering is not consciously perceptible. But our brains notice it, which can result in headaches, eye strain, eye fatigue and decreased visual performance — without even realizing that these symptoms could be connected to the LED light near us. Some research suggests that exposure to the blue light found in LEDs is phototoxic and can induce damage in retinal cells, which can lead to vision problems, speed up aging of our eyes and lead to macular degeneration.

The bigger headache will and has come from the wasted energy, most of it in the form of carbon, in maintaining highly inefficient incandescent bulbs. With such a magnitude of convincing data on the LED, that it has taken the federal government over fifteen years to legislate its adoption, is yet another clear sign that the U.S. electorate lacks the willpower to make tangible lifestyle shifts towards a sustainable future.

Engagement Resources:

  • https://www.feslighting.com is a leading national Lighting as a Service (LaaS) provider on a mission to make it easy for businesses to make smart energy choices.
  • https://www.axios.com/ delivers news that gets you smarter, faster on what matters.
  • https://www.environmentalleader.com/ is a woman-owned B2B media company on a mission to empower business leaders and executives with the knowledge and insights they need to drive progress and make a positive impact on the world.
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