Phoebus Cartel 2.0 Gets DOE to Roll Back Lightbulb Efficiency Standards

Eurofase closeup

The big light bulb manufacturers get what they want out of the DOE and the President. We should all stop buying anything from them.

In 1925 the light bulb manufacturers (Osram, Philips, Tungsram, Associated Electrical Industries, Compagnie des Lampes, International General Electric) all got together in the top-secret Phoebus Cartel to standardize the life expectancy of bulbs at 1,000 hours (some bulbs were lasting up to 2,500). This ensured that people would have to keep buying lots of bulbs and would reduce competition. According to Wikipedia,

The Phoebus cartel created a notable landmark in the history of the global economy because it engaged in large-scale planned obsolescence to generate repeated sales and maximize profit. It also reduced competition in the light bulb industry for almost fifteen years. Critics accused the cartel of preventing technological advances that would produce longer-lasting light bulbs.
The cartel kept bulb life short and prices high until the Second World War.

In 2007 President Bush passed bipartisan legislation to increase the energy efficiency of light bulbs and eventually ban conventional filament bulbs that put out less than 45 lumens per watt. The ban was phased, with the final deadline to be January 1, 2020, at which time all those specialty bulbs like reflector spots and floods, 3 way bulbs, candelabra bulbs and hipster steampunk coffee shop bulbs were supposed to be replaced.

After Donald Trump was elected President, the big light bulb manufacturers (GE, Signify [formerly known as Philips Lighting], and Sylvania, as represented by their trade association, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association) started lobbying to stop Phase II, so that they could keep selling those specialty incandescents that keep burning out. After all, if they sell you an LED, they only make one sale. With incandescents, you are a customer forever.

stage 2 savings

Stage 2 Savings could be bigger than stage 1/ ACEEE/Screen capture

In February, President Trump's Department of Energy announced that they were going to roll back these rules. Now the DOE has done it, announcing the final rule rolling back the standards. The cost in carbon and energy will be huge. According to the Alliance to Save Energy,

Fuel adminisitration ad

US Fuel Administration/ The government has always known that incandescent light consumes coal./Public Domain

The department’s action will cost the average American household roughly $100 per year while necessitating the energy generated by 25 coal-fired power plants, equivalent to the combined electrical usage of all households in New Jersey and Pennsylvania combined.

It will also cost consumers a lot of money; according to the NRDC, "These bulb actions could cost the average U.S. household more than $100 per year, adding $14 billion to Americans’ annual energy bills as of 2025." Noah Horowitz of the NRDC notes:

Efficiency standards would ensure that every bulb purchased in the future is an efficient one. This is particularly important to low-income families hit hardest by high electric bills and for those in high-poverty areas who might only be able to shop at small neighborhood stores, which are less likely to stock LEDs.

It's not like ten years ago, when conservatives would rail against ugly mercury-filled compact fluorescent Gorebulbs. I wrote earlier that "not even Fox Republicans are buying incandescent bulbs to own the Libs anymore. This particular revolution is over and the LEDs won.” Most people can't even tell the difference anymore. They still buy the incandescents because these specialty bulbs are cheaper, ignoring the long-term energy savings.

But a funny thing happened when regular incandescent bulbs were banned: the LEDs dropped in price to where they were almost as cheap as the incandescents they replaced. That's how innovation and competition works in the free market. That's what this new Phoebus Cartel 2.0 is trying to prevent. It's a conspiracy between them and the DOE to keep people spending money on bulbs and on electricity.


My late mother-in-law's chandelier with candelabra base LED bulbs/CC BY 2.0

Eventually, European and Asian LEDs will become as cheap and as nice to look at as incandescents and this will all be moot. But in the meantime, TreeHuggers should not only switch even their specialty bulbs to LEDs (I have with every bulb in my house, including the fancy chandelier bulbs), but we should also refuse to buy LEDs from this Phoebus Cartel 2.0 – GE, Signify (formerly known as Philips Lighting), and Sylvania, who pushed for this and are as much to blame as Rick Perry and the Department of Energy. These are the companies that have the most to gain, and who the government is pandering to.

IKEA has lots of good LED bulbs, and CREE has confirmed to me that they had no part of this. Alas, my house is mostly filled with Philips LEDs, but I will never buy another.