Bush-Era Efficiency Standards for Light Bulbs Are Back

The Department of Energy is phasing out Trump-era rollbacks.

Eurofase closeup
Even Steampunk lighting has to go LED now.

Lloyd Alter

Making progress on energy efficiency in the U.S. is a challenge when the rules change every four years or so when a new administration takes the office. But, here we are again, with the Biden administration undoing the changes made by the Trump administration to regulations made by the Bush administration.

Back in 2007, former President George W. Bush's Department of Energy (DOE) introduced regulations that started a revolution in lighting, which we have followed in real-time on Treehugger. Nobody at the time knew how it would all unfold. There were lots of different kinds of bulbs serving different needs and it was unclear what kind of regulations were needed, so the legislation had a sort of backstop or time bomb built into it: By January 1, 2020, all light bulbs must deliver 45 lumens per watt. This backstop would catch all those specialty bulbs listed in Stage 2—the spots, the candelabras, and the hipster steampunk incandescents—that were still on the market.

A graph showcasing the annual emissions reductions in 2020 and 2025
Savings in Stage 1 and 2.


But Big Bulb—GE, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), and Sylvania—liked selling all those specialty incandescents. They were almost half the market and, as I noted previously about their conspiracy to keep them on the market, if they sell you an LED, they only make one sale. With incandescents, you are a customer forever. So Big Bulb got former President Donald Trump's DOE to change the definitions and exclude all these bulbs from the "general service lamp" (GSL) category to continue exempting all those Stage 2 bulbs from the 45-lumen rule in 2019, just before the time bomb was supposed to go off.

Now, it is 2022 and the 45-lumen rule is back. According to President Joe Biden's DOE, the new standards will save consumers $3 billion each year in utility costs and cut annual carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over three decades. According to Joe Vukovich of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the emissions slashed are equivalent to the annual greenhouse emissions of 48 million vehicles.

"We are long overdue to phase out inefficient old-fashioned light bulbs as this progress was illegally delayed by the Trump administration for more than two years," said Vukovich in a statement. "LED bulbs, which will replace the old incandescents, use one-sixth the amount of energy to deliver the same amount of light and last at least 10 times longer.”

The DOE states:

"In this final rule, DOE is codifying in the Code of Federal Regulations the 45 lumens per watt (“lm/W”) backstop requirement for general service lamps (GSLs) that Congress prescribed in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, as amended. DOE has determined this backstop requirement applies because DOE failed to complete a rulemaking regarding GSLs in accordance with certain statutory criteria. This final rule represents a departure from DOE's previous determination published in 2019 that the backstop requirement was not triggered."

It is all so confusing, but the gist is specialty bulbs are no longer so special—they are GSLs again and have to comply. Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, who has been leading the fight to get this rule fixed, said in a press statement: “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. These standards will finally phase out energy-wasting bulbs across the country.”

We are certainly happy too. The LED revolution has been the most remarkable environmental success story of this century. The first LED we showed on Treehugger in 2007 pumped out 594 lumens and cost $70. Now, according to our "Most Efficient LEDs of 2022" roundup, an 800-lumen bulb costs $5. At 94 lumens per watt, it leaves Bush's backstop in the dust.

Why anyone would have wanted to stop this kind of progress is beyond me. But, at least until the next election, the LED revolution continues.

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