Washington’s War against the Incandescent Light Bulb Is Back

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The Trump administration called a truce in the regulatory war against the incandescent light bulb by declining to target them with additional efficiency standards, but the Biden administration just announced a resumption of hostilities. At stake is the consumer’s right to choose between the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs and the newer light-emitting diode (LED) lights.

For starters, the Department of Energy (DOE) has just proposed to restore an Obama administration rule, withdrawn by Trump, targeting specialty bulbs. This includes shatter-proof bulbs, reflector lamps, chandelier bulbs, three-way bulbs, and others. Congress originally created separate regulatory categories for these and other specialty bulbs because they have unique features that would make it hard for them to meet any energy efficiency standard applicable to general-use bulbs. Bottom line, the proposal to cancel these bulbs’ specialty status would effectively outlaw incandescent versions of them in favor of LED versions that are more efficient but cost more and may not work as well for these particular applications.

After targeting these specialty bulbs, DOE will likely move on to all the rest of them, again with the goal of making incandescent bulbs a thing of the past. Adding fuel to the fire are a number of environmental activists who have denigrated incandescent bulbs as contributors to climate change. Indeed, DOE has indicated that climate change will be used as a justification for additional light bulb regulations.

In 2019, the Trump DOE had declined to set more stringent efficiency standards for general service light bulbs. CEI and 13 other free market organizations submitted a coalition comment to the agency in support of this effort. We noted that the agency’s analysis showed that a tougher standard would raise the price of an incandescent bulb to a whopping $7.00 each. At that price, nearly 98 percent of consumers would never earn back this higher up-front cost in the form of energy savings. In fact, DOE estimated it will take three times longer (six years) to recoup the higher purchase price than the average lifetime of such bulbs (two years).

In effect, a new rule would have taken incandescent bulbs off the market. However, the statutory provisions authorizing DOE to set such energy standards expressly forbid the agency from setting them so high that product features and choice are compromised, and for this reason the Trump DOE left the existing standards unchanged.

In contrast, the Biden administration has signaled that it will move ahead with tougher regulations designed to deliver a knockout punch to incandescent lighting.

The good news is that the more efficient LED bulbs are rapidly improving and gaining market share, thus reducing the demand for the old-style incandescent bulbs. But LEDs still cost considerably more and have certain performance drawbacks, such as not dimming as well as incandescent bulbs.

But instead of allowing market trends to continue toward LEDs while leaving the incandescent option available for those who still prefer it, the Biden administration wants to make the choice for us.