President George W. Bush initiated the federal government’s targeting of incandescent light bulbs in energy legislation he signed in 2007. Subsequent Department of Energy (DOE) actions during the Obama administration would have likely dealt the final blow to Thomas Edison’s signature invention. But then the Trump DOE reversed these measures, preferring to leave light bulb-buying choices to consumers rather than bureaucrats. Now, however, it looks like the Biden administration is ready to finish off the incandescent bulb once and for all, though the legal and policy reasons behind the Trump DOE’s objections are still valid.
While not specifically going after incandescent bulbs, the proposed rule released last Friday would impose an efficiency standard they are unlikely to meet. The rule would probably leave the newer light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs as the only viable substitute.
The Trump DOE estimated that stringent new standards would raise the cost of an incandescent light bulb to $7 each. The agency found that the higher purchase price of such ultra-efficient incandescent bulbs would never be earned back in the form of additional energy savings, leaving consumers worse off.
Fortunately, LED bulbs are good and getting better, and the Biden DOE leans heavily on this fact in downplaying the significance of eliminating incandescent bulbs. But the agency has it backwards—the emergence of LEDs shows that the market is working fine without need for government intervention. LEDs are improving while also coming down in price, and are projected by the agency to comprise 84 percent of the market by 2035—even without regulations.
Consumers are best served by having the choice of LEDs or incandescent lights. For example, incandescent bulbs are better for dimming, as LEDs tend to flicker (though LED makers are closing the gap). And the cheaper incandescent bulbs make sense for rarely used lights, such as in attics or basements, where energy efficiency doesn’t make much difference. In addition, simply having incandescent bulbs remain on the market exerts a measure of price discipline on LEDs that will be gone if LEDs become the only game in town.
For these reasons, the proposed rule violates the consumer protections in the law that prevent DOE from setting efficiency standards that adversely impact product choice and features.
Expect the proposed rule, if finalized in its current form, to end up in federal court and for the agency to have to explain why consumers are better off with fewer lighting choices. In other words, the incandescent bulb is down but not yet out.