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Department of Energy Expands Consumer Choice in Light Bulbs

The Trump administration took a pro-consumer step today as the Department of Energy finalized a rule that will allow certain types of lower-cost light bulbs to remain on the market. 

The details of lighting efficiency laws and regulations are complicated, but the gist of it is that the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act required the Department of Energy to mandate tough energy efficiency standards for “general service lamps”—the pear-shaped light bulbs we are all familiar with. These standards were unlikely to be met by the commonly-used and inexpensive incandescent light bulbs that had been on the market for many decades, necessitating a change in technology.  At the time, many assumed that compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs would be the replacement of choice, but consumers have largely rejected them due to their high cost and poor light quality.  Instead, light emitting diode (LED) bulbs have filled the void and are rapidly gaining market share.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the department expanded the definition of general service lamps beyond what was set out in law to include certain specialty products like reflector lamps. As it turns out, these are types of bulbs for which LED versions are not yet up to the task. The new rule restores the original intent of the 2007 statute to treat these specialty bulbs as a category apart from general service lamps. Bottom line: the incandescent versions of these types of bulbs will still be available.

The Obama crackdown on these light bulbs was part of its climate agenda, and indeed supporters of that agenda have attacked this rule as bad for both the environment and consumers by allowing less efficient versions to remain on the market. These criticisms miss the point that the rule expands consumer choice. Even without a mandate, homeowners can always opt for ultra-efficient bulbs if that is what they want, but now they are not always limited to them.

As with the proposed changes to Obama-era efficiency standards for automobiles, the Trump administration has taken an approach that empowers consumers by expanding their choices instead of telling them what they are allowed to have.