Why I Oppose the Lightbulb Law

For the past few days I’ve been going back and forth with @NobleIdeas on the national lightbulb law (formally known as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007), but I thought I’d break out of the 140-character limit and write down my rationale.

Those who know me know that I’m a big fan of efficiency, especially when it results in economic gain as well as environmental. During my term as CSO at Sun we did big lighting retrofit projects, and saved tons of money.

I’m also a big fan of government efficiency programs, provided they are thoughtful and competitively balanced. Topping the list is EPA’s Energy Star program which is the envy of countries around the world, and for good reason. It puts useful data in consumer’s hands, and is a platform for thousands of other efficiency programs. For example, many state and local rebate programs use Energy Star as their benchmark for rewarding efficient consumer choices. Unfortunately, as efficiency as grown in economic significance, the standards setting processes are becoming increasingly political, and prone to domination by the largest companies in a given industry.

About the Law

The lightbulb law didn’t technically ban incandescent lights, but it practically did. Incandescents are typically 5% efficient (meaning the other 95% is waste heat), and the law requires bulbs to be at least 30% more efficient, and incandescents aren’t going to get there (even if they could, the major bulb manufacturers now have no incentive to do it since they already make and sell the more expensive alternative). The law starts in 2012 with 100W bulbs and picks up many of other common bulbs by the end of 2014.

While industries often fight against efficiency laws, the lighting industry, led by giants GE and Philips Electronics were way in favor of this one. To understand their support, you have to look no further than the economics of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), the only practical alternative that meets the federal law. While everyone touts the decreased cost to consumers, all of the savings is in energy. CFL manufacturers are charging many times the price of an incandescent bulb, but consumers are making up more than the difference in energy costs. And while some cite longer life spans, the economic advantages based on that alone are inconclusive.

I’m sure that environmental policy types played a role in this law, but I’m confident that such a draconian law would never have been passed without the full support of the industry. It’s actually pretty incredible when you think about it: major companies got the federal government to outlaw a widely used product, forcing customers to buy a higher priced alternative from the same companies. And through this statement you can start to see why this law is so unique:

  1. for the first time in the efficiency space the government has banned products below a certain level, instead of using an informational program like automobile MPG labels, a branding program like Energy Star, or doing a portfolio standard, like the CAFE standard for cars.
  2. the government banned a product which is widely used and which is not a direct hazard to consumers.
  3. the government banned a product when is no true, equivalent replacement product available. CFLs, the only economically viable option, have different spectra, have disposal and safety issues due to their mercury content, and have known deficiencies in warm environment, such as recessed lighting, to name a few. Sure CFLs work great in many cases (we use them in our house), but they don’t replace all current uses of incandescent lights.

Why I Don’t Like the Law

At this point you’ve probably guessed why I don’t like the law, but I’ll spell it out anyway.

  1. It treats Americans like dirt. In my experience supporters of the law have had two views on consumers: 1) they’re being stupid for not understanding the long term cost benefits, or 2) they have reasons to want to still use the old ones, but GHG reduction is more important. I believe US consumers are smarter than people believe, and are making rational decisions based on their own situation. As a result, I find both of these views disrespectful and outside of the founding ideals of this country.
  2. Other industries will try the same thing. If you think the success of this ploy by GE and Philips hasn’t been noticed in other parts of those companies and in other industries, then you’re quaintly naive.
  3. It’s setting a really bad precedent. The federal government now believes it has a new tool in its efficiency toolkit: outlawing inefficient products, irrespective of whether they are popular or there exists a true replacement in the market. Many have said “relax, its only lightbulbs”. Beyond the fact that sometimes lightbulbs matter to people (see #1 above), lets see what products the government tries to apply to tool to next.