Trump's Energy Department Swoops in to Save Us From the Tyranny of More Efficient Lightbulbs

A CFL bulb (right), a vintage-style incandescent bulb (center), and an LED bulb (left).
A CFL bulb (right), a vintage-style incandescent bulb (center), and an LED bulb (left).
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s administration has turned its malicious gaze towards energy-efficient lightbulb standards originally enacted during the Bush administration and finalized by the Obama administration, NPR reported on Wednesday.

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In an announcement, the Department of Energy wrote that standards imposed in 2017 were composed “in a manner that is not consistent with the best reading of the statute” and that it has finalized a plan (proposed months ago) intended to roll them back. According to the Washington Post, eliminating those standards will mean that inefficient incandescent lightbulbs previously slated to be “effectively phased out” by the start of 2020 will continue to be manufactured and sold stores across the U.S., potentially costing billions of dollars in extra energy costs annually.

Per the Post, the Energy Department justified the decision with some mealy-mouthed mumbling about there being too many damn regulations:

The rollback will mean $14 billion a year in higher energy costs and add to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The Energy Department said phasing out the bulbs would be “a lose-lose for consumers” because of the higher cost of more efficient bulbs. And it said it would be “regulating these lightbulbs out of existence.”

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Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes added in some gobbledygook about freedom in a statement to the New York Times, claiming that rolling back the standards “will ensure that the choice of how to light homes and businesses is left to the American people, not the federal government.” (The standards apply to companies manufacturing and importing lightbulbs and do not ban the purchase or use of incandescent lightbulbs; additionally, some efficient halogen and incandescent bulbs manage to meet the standards.)

According to the Times, the two rules that the Energy Department has proposed eliminating are the energy efficiency standards for pear-shaped bulbs set to kick in Jan 1., 2020, and another that would have required additional types of bulbs to meet that standard:

A second rollback targets rules that, next year, would have required adding several additional kinds of incandescent and halogen light bulbs to the energy-efficient group: three-way bulbs; the candle-shaped bulbs used in chandeliers; the globe-shaped bulbs found in bathroom lighting; and reflector bulbs used in recessed fixtures and track lighting. Under the Energy Department’s proposed plan, those requirements will be eliminated and sales of traditional incandescent bulbs for those purposes can continue.

Note that the Department of Energy’s own website notes that incandescent bulbs are actually more expensive for consumers than compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and light-emitting diodes (LED) due to the former’s “relative inefficiency and short life spans.” In another post on the department’s website, titled “Lighting Choices to Save You Money,” the agency noted that 90 percent of the power used by older-model incandescent bulbs is wasted as heat; it added that by switching just five lighting fixtures from older bulbs to Energy Star-certified bulbs, that average household could save $45 a year.

As the Times noted, while LED bulbs used to be expensive, adoption costs are now practically nil with costs falling to under $2 each. LEDs also last multiple years, making the switch pretty much a no-brainer.

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Though the energy efficiency rules were signed into law by Bush and had bipartisan support, they became one of the many tiresome flashpoints for right-wing outrage during the Obama administration, with Republicans trying to paint the issue as socialist big government sticking it to the working man. That didn’t stick—the National Electrical Manufacturers Association told the Times that they estimate 84 percent of “general purpose” lighting fixtures will use CFLs or LEDs by the end of 2019—but apparently that Republican elephant never forgets a grudge.

“It makes zero sense to eliminate energy-saving lightbulb standards that will save households money on electricity bills and cut climate change emissions,” Appliance Standards Awareness Project executive director Andrew deLaski told the Washington Post in a statement. “Instead, the Trump administration is siding with manufacturers that want to keep selling outdated, energy-wasting lightbulbs.”

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Delaski told NPR, “Every time a consumer shifts to an LED, that lightbulb is going to last 10 years or longer. So the lightbulb manufacturers are trying to save technology that keeps the consumer coming back to buy another bulb every year, but still wastes a lot of energy.”

As the Times separately reported last month, Trump’s White House has either rolled back or is in the process of rolling back over 80 environmental regulations. Those range from standards limiting emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from power plants and fossil fuel infrastructure, to coal ash regulations and throwing out drilling restrictions.

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DISCUSSION

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Lessee. I have a bunch of lamps and a bunch of light fixtures designed around incandescent bulbs. So I can throw away all the lamps and replace all the fixtures, possibly requiring rewiring them in the house and already I’m in the hole for the money I’ll save over the next 20 years. Not to mention that the actual illumination is usually below what the incandescents can get to. I have a 100-200-300 watt single bulb fixture. Good luck getting an LED bulb to manage that in a similar size.

Now I do have a couple of LED lamps and a couple of CFLs, but I’ve already had fixtures destroy the CFLs in short order because, while the tube is OK, the electronics to drive the tube get killed because the bulb cannot radiate excess heat and the fixture cannot supply enough cool air. Unlike incandescent bulbs, I broke about 5 of the CFLs because the fixtures don’t allow access to reach all the way to the tiny base and the bulbs are about 10% as strong as the old bulbs, so they get twisted off. I’m pretty sure mercury levels are now 1000X what they used to be.

The LEDs are great, every one of them is a slightly different combination of colors. Unlike incandescent bulbs that follow Black Body radiation laws put down by Max Planck, LEDs and CFLs are any damn fragments of spectrum they want to mix into the phosphors. And they buzz because that’s how power supplies work.

Still, the skilled making of the old bulbs is gone so I expect the marketplace to have any number of them that fry long before their estimated life, but then so do the CFLs and LEDs which have power supply failures and thermal expansion failures long before the light emitting component fails. 50,000 hrs on an LED with a 500 hour capacitor in the power supply does not equal a savings.