A Light in Dark Places: NRDC Sues to Defend Efficient Bulbs

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NRDC and our allies are suing the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop a harmful and unlawful attack on light bulb efficiency standards for many of the most commonly used bulbs in America.

On September 5th, DOE finalized the creation of loopholes in the standards for many of the most commonly used bulbs in America. It’s unlawful, as well as a betrayal of DOE’s own thinking and the ordinarily bipartisan support for energy efficiency.

That’s why NRDC, along with Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club, Consumer Federation of America, and the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants; the U.S. Public Interest Research Group; and Environment America filed suit in New York City in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Almost 10 years after President G. W. Bush signed legislation to phase out inefficient incandescent and halogen light bulbs by 2020, DOE issued regulations in 2017 to expand the number of covered bulbs and to close harmful loopholes. These regulations went a long way toward making America’s light bulbs even more efficient, approximately doubling the number of sockets that would be using a more efficient bulb. But earlier this year, DOE announced that it was going to ignore the law and its previous analysis – threatening to send U.S. light bulb efficiency back to the dark ages.

Congress set definitions and standards for a wide variety of bulbs when it passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). In particular, Congress established a sequence of increasing efficiency standards, leading to a standard of 45 lumens per watt (LPW) in 2020. The first tier of standards, phased in between 2012 and 2014, required bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy than old-style incandescent bulbs. The second tier (45 LPW) due to become effective in 2020 requires bulbs to use about 65 percent less energy than the original incandescent bulbs while delivering the same amount of light. A standard of 45 LPW would ensure that light bulbs sold in America are world-class in terms of efficiency (more than 1 billion U.S. sockets today still contain an inefficient bulb). Given that not every retail outlet offers LEDs now, removing the less-efficient bulbs means consumers will be guaranteed the availability of the more efficient bulbs on all store shelves and almost certainly make them even cheaper as manufacturers take advantage of economies of scale.  

While Congress did a good job setting standards and definitions in 2007, it also recognized that the light bulb market is fast-changing and gave DOE the clear authority to expand definitions and remove exemptions in order to require more bulbs to meet the standards, including the 45 LPW standard. This is a one-way street: Congress only gave DOE authority to remove exemptions—not the authority to introduce new exemptions. Similarly, Congress has explicitly prohibited DOE from weakening a standard once it has been finalized.

DOE exercised its authority to expand definitions and remove exemptions in 2017, correctly recognizing that making more bulbs more efficient is a huge win for consumers, the environment, and the country. The rules amended definitions and successfully expanded the number of types of bulbs subject to the next-generation efficiency standards written by Congress, bulb types for which there were already effective, consumer-friendly LED versions available. These include commonly encountered bulbs such as three-way bulbs, which produce three different levels of light; flame- or candle-shaped bulbs used in chandeliers; globe-shaped bulbs commonly used in bathroom vanities; and reflector bulbs installed in recessed cans and track lighting.

DOE also correctly recognized that if certain loopholes were not addressed, manufacturers would likely shift to selling products outside the scope of the regulatory definitions rather than make their products more efficient. We have already seen this play out in real time: manufacturers slightly changed the shape of some reflector lamps, adding a “bulge” to the glass, so that they would fall outside the old definitions. DOE’s updated 2017 definitions closed these loopholes and avoided potential future ones.

Yet now DOE is trying to turn back the clock, needlessly slashing the number of bulbs that would need to meet the congressionally mandated 45 LPW and effectively undermining light bulb efficiency standards. As my colleague Noah Horowitz has explained, DOE’s definition rollback, combined with another related attack on efficiency, puts enormous savings at risk. By 2025, phasing out incandescents will save consumers over $14 billion and avoid 38 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, per year.

There’s no sound reason for this rollback, and in fact DOE has utterly failed to grapple with the logic underpinning the 2017 rules. In fact, because DOE has no authority to introduce exemptions and is expressly barred from weakening efficiency standards, what the Department is attempting to do is a double whammy. It is invoking authority it doesn’t have to pursue an objective it is legally barred from pursuing: effectively weakening the 45 LPW standard that Congress itself created.

But the real reason DOE is doing it isn’t a mystery. The more efficient bulbs, LEDs, last a long time—often 10 years or more! The less efficient bulbs are incandescents, which are really no more advanced than the bulb that Thomas Edison developed over a hundred years ago. They last a much shorter time, and it’s far more profitable for corporations to sell you many incandescent bulbs than it is to sell you an efficient LED.

Much of the world has already transitioned from old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. But rather than do the right thing for consumers, the environment, and the country, DOE and light bulb manufacturers are trying to make the United States a dumping ground for the world’s outdated light bulbs. Fortunately, NRDC and our coalition partners are prepared to stop this senseless lawlessness. We’ll see the Trump administration in court.

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