Cutting of funds for enforcement of new light bulb efficiency standards will have little effect


FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2011 file photo, General Electric's 9-watt Energy Smart LED light bulbs are tested in an oven at the lighting group's Nela Park headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File) (Mark Duncan/AP)
December 16, 2011

The federal spending bill before Congress is a no-spending bill for the Energy Department when it comes to enforcing new efficiency standards for light bulbs.

But the new standards for light bulbs — signed into law in 2007 — would remain in place, meaning the effort to stem the new rules might mean little at the end of the day.

“The provision in the bill does not repeal the lighting standards but only removes funds for enforcement,” said David A. Schuellerman, a spokesman for General Electric’s appliances and lighting division. “We are required to abide by the standards and, of course, intend to comply with our legal obligation.”

The law, passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush, sets high-efficiency standards for light bulbs, effectively phasing out the manufacture of the traditional incandescent bulb Americans have used since Thomas Edison.

Starting in 2012 with 100-watt bulbs, then in 2013 with 75-watt bulbs, and in 2014 with 60-watt bulbs, the law sets higher efficiency bars that can be met either by new high-efficiency incandescent, compact fluorescent or light emitting diode (LED) bulbs.

Over the past year, conservatives have made the light bulb standards a rallying point for complaints about government interference. “Let there be incandescent light and freedom. That’s the American way,” radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said on a broadcast. And House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), one of the co-sponsors of the light bulb measure in 2007, backed away from the idea of the standards this year.

But supporters of the new standards say that the 2007 law doesn’t ban incandescent bulbs and that many companies have come up with ways to make incandescents that comply with the new regulations.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. “Retailers don’t have to take inventories of old bulbs off the shelves. The government is not going to come into homes to check. . . . You’re still going to be able to buy incandescent bulbs, they’re just going to be 28 to 30 percent more efficient.”

Light bulb makers on Friday took a dim view of the restrictions in the omnibus spending bill. The nation’s biggest bulb makers have been gearing up to comply with the regulations, coming up with new types of incandescent bulbs, as well as compact fluorescent and LED bulbs.

“American manufacturers have invested millions of dollars in transitioning to the standards,” said Joseph Higbee, communications director for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. “A delay in enforcement would undermine those investments and cause regulatory uncertainty.”

Jim Haworth, chief executive officer of Lighting Science Group, an LED maker, called the limits on the Energy Department “unfortunate” but said he expects “sales to grow exponentially over the next couple of years — with or without the light bulb efficiency standards.” This year, his sales are running double last year’s levels.

GE said that in 2011, 94 percent of its lighting investment was in energy-efficient products, a 28 per­­cent increase from 2010.

“This decision may have little practical consequence. . . . The five major bulb manufacturers have already switched to making and selling the better bulbs,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “If America is to have a rational energy policy, we need to make progress in efficiency.”

Because of the funding cut, the Energy Department won’t be able to make sure light bulbs meet the efficiency standards they claim.

The department already exercises such power over appliances. Though it has been criticized over whether it has fully carried out that mission, the department, in a presentation it gave to efficiency experts, said that since Jan. 1, 2010, it has taken more than 200 enforcement actions, removed more than 80 products from the market and collected more than $800,000 in civil penalties for violations.

Steven Mufson covers the White House. Since joining The Post, he has covered economics, China, foreign policy and energy.
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