Department of Energy is coming after our light bulbs – again

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We have already said goodbye to the incandescent light bulb, thanks to federal regulations. Will its replacement be next?

Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency regulations spelled the end of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb in favor light-emitting diode (LED) technology. LED bulbs are more energy efficient than their traditional counterparts and thus can meet the federal requirements, but they do cost more and have a few drawbacks such as not working as well with dimmers. Nonetheless, they were gaining market share even before being handed a captive market, and most consumers have accepted them.

But now – announced late in the day on Friday, April 12 – DOE issued a final rule setting extremely tough new requirements that even LED bulbs will have a hard time with.

The Biden administration DOE has been relentless – light bulbs join air conditioners, dishwashers, refrigerators, ceiling fans, furnaces, washing machines, stoves, and water heaters as the subject of pending or final rules over the past year alone. This regulatory blizzard comes after four years under President Donald Trump in which the agency took a much more anti-regulatory posture, and on light bulbs the contrast is particularly stark. Trump provided more flexibility for incandescent bulbs and declined to make the already-challenging energy efficiency requirements even more stringent. But team Biden came in and did just that, effectively hammering the last nail in the coffin for incandescent bulbs. 

Apparently that is not enough, and now LEDs are in the crosshairs. For the most common kinds of light bulbs, the current standard of 45 lumens per watt is now being tightened to 120 lumens per watt, which very few LED bulbs can meet. The light bulb market is complicated, with thousands of different versions available and multiple categories and features, but it appears that upwards of 99 percent of LEDs available today wouldn’t meet this standard when it takes effect in 2028. Even most of the bulbs currently awarded the federal government’s EnergyStar designation as being the most efficient ones on the market fall short of what will be required. The few bulbs that do meet the standard tend to be several dollars more expensive than the rest. For its part, DOE estimates the price for a typical pear-shaped light bulb rising from $2.98 to $5.68, an increase of $2.70 per bulb, or nearly 91 percent.

Not known is whether the high efficiency bulbs have any performance drawbacks, such as not lasting as long as the less efficient versions. But there is a history of hyper-aggressive DOE appliance standards backfiring and harming consumers – such as dishwashers taking a lot longer to do the job – so this is a real concern.

This regulation is unambiguously bad news for consumers because it limits choices. Anyone who wants these ultra-efficient bulbs will be free to choose them, with or without government meddling. The only thing the regulation does is force that option on everyone.  

It’s too early to know whether the rule will be challenged in federal court or be the subject of Congressional repeal legislation. But if the agency gets away with it, there doubtless will be subsequent rules tightening the standards again.  

Maybe the regulators will eventually do to LED bulbs what they did to incandescent ones. Keep those candles handy.