DOE’s Latest Proposal to “Save” the Incandescent Is Illegal

As part of its relentless assault on energy efficiency, the Trump administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed NOT to update the minimum efficiency standards for the most common light bulbs in our homes and is holding a meeting on the topic today in Washington, D.C. NRDC will be there to tell the agency why perpetuating the ongoing sale of energy-wasting bulbs is illegal and will cost Americans billions in higher energy bills and cause millions of tons of unnecessary climate-warming pollution.

And if the Trump administration officials go forward with this outrageous and harmful proposal, we will explore every option—including litigation—to stop it.

DOE

The DOE’s latest proposal comes shortly after it issued a final rule that essentially cut in half the number of sockets that are subject to the federal light bulb efficiency standards. To justify its actions in both cases, DOE essentially developed a series of flawed legal analyses to support its goals of: a) preserving the lighting companies’ ability to keep selling inefficient incandescent and halogen bulbs—which waste up to 90 per cent of the power they consume as heat—as long as possible; and b) to satisfy the Trump administration’s desire to roll back regulations and environmental safeguards wherever it can.

Today’s meeting will focus on DOE’s plans to allow energy-wasting versions of the regular pear-shaped bulbs in our homes and businesses to remain on store shelves indefinitely, ignoring Congress’ statutory roadmap that only energy efficient bulbs be available to purchase as of Jan. 1, 2020.

Bottom line: DOE’s proposed rule is unlawful and puts at risk the enormous societal benefits that the phaseout of incandescent and halogen bulbs intended by Congress in the 2007 federal energy bill will provide, thereby:

  • Eliminating the need to generate 25 large power (500 MW) coal-burning power plants’ worth of electricity every year,
  • which translates to $14 billion worth of annual utility bill savings for consumers and businesses, and
  • the avoidance of 38 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the main heat- trapping pollutant responsible for climate change, every year.

These numbers represent the savings due to occur in 2025 and are from an analysis done by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

What the law says

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) clearly laid out a plan for DOE to phaseout the sale of inefficient light bulbs used in our homes. It said that if certain conditions were not met, the backstop energy efficiency level of 45 lumens per watt (LPW) would go into effect on January 1, 2020. Due to DOE’s prior inaction, the backstop has indeed been triggered. Because no incandescent or halogen on the market today can meet the 45 LPW minimum, consumers will be choosing between CFL and LED bulbs. Most consumers likely will choose LEDs due to their longer life and superior performance. 

EISA also required DOE to review the list of bulbs that were initially exempted in 2007. DOE did exactly that and after careful review published an updated definition on Jan. 19, 2017. That rule brought the bulbs that go into just under 3 billion sockets, or roughly half of all household bulbs, into scope. These include: 3-way bulbs, reflector bulbs used in recessed cans and track lighting, flame- and candle-shaped bulbs used in chandeliers and sconces, and round globe bulbs. Even though cost-effective LED options for each of these bulbs are already widely available, DOE has tried to turn back the clock by reinstating the old, exemption-filled definitions in September 2019 without any sound legal or technical justification.

DOE’s one-two punch of rolling back the definitions and proposed decision not to update the standards provides an unnecessary and illegal lifeline for the incandescent and halogen bulbs whose sales were to be discontinued as of January 1, 2020 due to their inefficiency. (See this letter recently signed by 14 Senators that reiterates Congress’ intent and their outrage over DOE’s failure to follow the law.)

The lighting industry knew twelve years ago that these standards were coming and has done a good job developing low-cost, high-performing, energy-saving LED bulbs in a wide variety of shapes, base types and light levels. Despite that, most of the big lighting companies are working hard to preserve their ability to sell old inefficient incandescents because they burn out much faster (typically every year or so) and deliver considerable profits, without consideration of the resulting long-term financial harm to their customers and the environment.

And despite what President Trump has been saying, LEDs don’t cost a lot more, don’t contain toxic materials, and their light doesn’t make people look orange.  

DOE is ignoring the law and the industry is wearing blinders

DOE is acting as if the backstop has not been triggered and has issued a proposed determination NOT to amend the conservation standards for general service incandescent lamps (GSILs), the DOE’s official term for the ubiquitous pear-shaped bulbs used throughout our homes. At today’s meeting, NRDC will be joined by many others in pointing out the flaws in DOE’s legal and technical analyses and urging the agency to:  a) restore the broad definitions from 2017; and b) to implement the 45 LPW minimum standard on Jan. 1 for all bulbs covered by the regulation as required by law.

The big three lighting manufacturers—GE, Philips Lighting, and Sylvania—and their trade association NEMA have openly partnered with DOE in developing the flawed legal theory about the backstop because they make a lot of money selling incandescents. They point to the significant growth in LED sales, which is indeed impressive, and request that DOE instead “let the market take care of it.” But absent standards, it will take many more years for all the sockets to change over to LEDs or other efficient options.

But more than that, despite the industry’s wishes, these standards are not optional, and DOE does not have the ability to simply ignore/bypass its statutory requirements.

The time to act is now

Unless DOE takes the proper steps to implement the 45 lumen per watt minimum standard for the full suite of light bulbs in our homes, a series of lawsuits from the likes of NRDC, other leading environmental and consumer advocates, and leading attorney generals are likely on their way. Given the climate crisis we are facing, we need to lock in these massive carbon savings now, rather than allow the industry to keep selling their dinosaur, energy-wasting incandescents for years to come.

And on top of the massive environmental benefits, every U.S. household will on average save more than $100 on their annual utility bills once they change out their remaining inefficient bulbs.

DOE: The ball, or make that the bulb, is in your court and the clock is ticking for you to do the right thing!

Stop Trump’s attack on energy efficiency

About the Authors

Noah Horowitz

Director, Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.