An Energy Efficient Glimmer of Hope: Light Bulb Standards Avoid House Repeal

In a small but critical victory for energy efficiency, Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives failed to garner the two-thirds majority vote necessary to repeal light bulb efficiency standards set to go into effect in January 2012. Although the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act did receive a simple majority vote of 233-193 last Tuesday, it is unlikely to progress any further in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The U.S. Department of Energy website displays the range of light bulbs that meet the upheld standards.

The U.S. Department of Energy website displays the range of light bulbs that meet the upheld standards.

The campaign by House Republicans to block light bulb efficiency standards was characterized by misinformation. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and other GOP leaders presented the standards as an overreach by the Obama administration to allow intrusion into consumer decision-making by the federal government. While the current administration has indeed demonstrated strong support for upholding the efficiency standards, they were originally passed as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) which received strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Another inaccurate claim put forth by BULB Act proponents is that the standards will limit individual freedom by banning incandescent bulbs and forcing consumers to buy visually unappealing, more expensive compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). The EISA standards in fact contain no such ban, but rather mandate 27 to 29 percent bulb efficiency improvements through 2014, with more stringent standards of 60 to 70 percent improvements planned for 2020.

A statement released by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on the eve of the House vote made the case for maintaining the light bulb standards and attempted to dispel common misrepresentations. Secretary Chu clarified that several technologies, including energy-saving incandescent, CFL, and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs will be able to meet the standards and provide consumers with a wide range of lighting options. He also emphasized the annual cost savings from meeting the new efficiency requirements, estimated at $50 per household and $6 billion nationwide. The lifetime cost savings of more efficient (and often much longer-lasting) bulbs far outweigh possible upfront cost increases.

The framing of energy efficiency and other environmental standards as infringements on personal freedom underestimates the capacity for private sector innovation to meet consumer needs under new constraints. American companies including General Electric and Philips have already taken on the challenge and designed cheap, efficient bulbs. Squabbles over light bulb design also disregard the urgency of the need for a drastic overhaul of our nation’s current energy system in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly enough to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.

In the energy policy debate, often mired in partisan bickering and special interest politics, energy efficiency has long enjoyed rare broad appeal. Efficiency improvements can have environmental benefits, reduce fossil fuel reliance, and realize cost savings. Existing efficiency programs in the U.S., including Energy Star and vehicle fuel efficiency standards, save consumers tens of billions of dollars and prevent hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Keeping lighting efficiency standards in place is another step towards capturing the benefits that efficiency can provide.

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