Source: Pixabay

Congress’s Bright Idea to Promote Efficient Lightbulbs

The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees energy efficiency standards for a huge range of goods, from refrigerators to traffic lights. Hidden within the thousands of words instructing the agency on how to set these standards is a clever solution to a big problem.

The problem is that incandescent lightbulbs are among the least efficient products available today. That inefficiency matters: lighting accounts for about 5% of all electricity consumed in the United States. Less than 10% of incandescent bulbs’ energy goes toward what we want: light. They also burn out much more quickly than other bulbs. True, they tend to have a cheaper sticker price than alternatives like LEDs — but the additional energy and bulbs users have to buy make them more expensive over their life span than those alternatives. And it isn’t close.

Incandescent bulbs therefore offer basically no advantages to consumers, and their high electricity demands make them worse for the climate and environment as well.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress recognized and devised a solution to this problem. As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Congress amended the nation’s energy-efficiency laws to help ensure that inefficient lightbulbs were phased out of the market. For most goods, efficiency-focused laws tell DOE to require that products match industry standards, and to consider going beyond them when good reasons exist. But for household lightbulbs — what the law calls “general service lamps” — Congress went a step further. It wanted to phase out incandescent bulbs fully.

It therefore took a two-pronged approach, leaving nothing to chance. First, it told DOE to set strict minimum standards — so strict that no incandescent bulb could meet them. Second, it told DOE that, if it does not do that (or at least produce equivalent energy savings) before 2020, then the standard for sellable lightbulbs “shall” be set at 45 lumens per watt — which is, again, strict enough to exclude incandescent bulbs.

A rare example of legislative clarity in the famously opaque world of administrative law, this belt-and-suspenders approach avoids any ambiguities and loopholes. If DOE does not achieve certain minimum standards before 2020, the law says, the so-called “backstop standard” of 45 lumens per watt kicks in. Either way, incandescent bulbs — and their harms to consumers and the climate — would be on their way out.

But things would not be so simple. In December 2019 — right before the backstop provision was set to kick in — the Trump administration’s DOE determined that it was, in fact, not triggered. DOE never claimed that it met the standards Congress imposed; it clearly hadn’t. It instead relied on the contorted logic that the backstop standard was triggered only if DOE itself affirmatively decided that incandescent bulbs needed new regulations. Since it had not decided to issue any such standards, DOE reasoned, it did not have to issue the backstop standard.

If that logic is confusing to you, you are not alone. Clearly, the point of having a backstop is to create certainty that the standard will be met. Why would Congress want to let DOE avoid issuing strict lightbulb standards simply by issuing no standards? (And besides, DOE’s reasons for not issuing any standards made little sense.)

After President Biden took office, DOE reversed course, saying — as many states and environmental groups had been urging — that the backstop standard was triggered, after all. It would therefore soon prohibit selling lightbulbs that do not achieve at least 45 lumens per watt. (A separate rulemaking would remove any definitional loopholes that might let incandescent bulbs off the hook.) That conclusion aligns with common sense and with Congress’s clear intent to phase out incandescent bulbs.

Congress’s clarity in mandating the backstop standard is enough to justify DOE’s proposed backstop rule. When it comes to energy efficiency standards, Congress’s word is final. Case closed.

But it turns out — unsurprisingly — that the backstop standard also creates enormous value for society. So even if DOE did have to justify the backstop standard on its merits, it could very easily do so.

Consider, first, the climate impacts that the standard would have. Phasing out incandescent bulbs means less electricity use, and that means less greenhouse gas emissions. In its economic analysis of this standard, DOE puts those avoided emissions into dollar terms using the government-wide “social cost of greenhouse gases” estimates. Even though these figures are widely acknowledged to be conservative, lower-bound estimates, DOE still finds climate benefits worth hundreds of millions to billions of dollars per year. As the Institute for Policy Integrity outlines in a comment co-signed by several other groups, those climate estimates rest on very solid foundations.

But perhaps DOE’s most striking finding is that it need not rely on climate benefits at all to justify the backstop standard economically. All it needs to show is what Congress recognized when it drafted the backstop standard: that incandescent bulbs are bad for consumers themselves. The stricter backstop standard creates vast consumer cost savings — that is, lower payments for power and new bulbs — that exceed energy-efficient bulbs’ slightly higher up-front costs. And it’s not close: consumer cost savings alone exceed costs by an order of magnitude. While ongoing litigation has cast a shadow over federal agencies’ climate cost estimates, in this case, it does not matter. DOE could ignore climate impacts, and cost savings alone would still easily justify the action.

Regulatory analysis and rulemaking often involve grey areas and uncertainties. But the story of the backstop standard is largely one of clarity. Congress clearly requires it. And it is clearly beneficial from multiple perspectives. DOE should finalize and begin enforcing this standard as quickly as it possibly can.

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