The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump saved this old-fashioned lightbulb. Biden’s now phasing it out.

New Energy Department rules will save consumers $3 billion and cut annual carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over 30 years

An incandescent lightbulb. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
4 min

The end has come for the old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb.

The Energy Department finalized two rules Monday requiring manufacturers to sell energy-efficient lightbulbs, effectively putting a sell-by date on older, inefficient bulbs that don’t meet the new standards. The move will speed the pace of a lighting revolution that is already well underway, driving down electricity use, saving consumers money and slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

The new rules, which reverse a Trump-era policy, expand energy-efficiency requirements to more types of lightbulbs and ban the sale of those that produce less than 45 lumens per watt — a measure of how much light is emitted for each unit of electricity. This will eventually prohibit most incandescent and halogen lightbulbs and shift the country toward compact fluorescent and LED bulbs.

Biden administration officials estimate that, taken together, the two rules will save consumers about $3 billion annually when fully implemented. They also project that the changes will cut carbon emissions by 222 million metric tons over the next 30 years, roughly equivalent to what 28 million homes generate annually.

“The lighting industry is already embracing more energy efficient products, and this measure will accelerate progress to deliver the best products to American consumers and build a better and brighter future,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

How to shop for more efficient lightbulbs

Although sales of LED bulbs have grown rapidly, the most recent sales data shows that incandescent or halogen bulbs still made up about 30 percent of the market in 2020.

The new efficiency standard will take effect 75 days after it is printed in the Federal Register. But the Energy Department will phase in enforcement over time. For manufacturers, full enforcement of the new rule will begin Jan. 1. Retailers and distributors will have an extra seven months to comply, giving them more time to sell existing inventory.

The American Lighting Association, a trade group, had asked the Biden administration to postpone fully implementing stricter lightbulb efficiency standards for two years. In June, it warned that a faster pivot away from incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient LEDs would result in “major financial losses” for lighting manufacturers and retailers, as well as “a glut of stranded inventory, piling up at individual showrooms and eventually landfills.”

But on Tuesday, the group’s vice president for government engagement, Michael Weems, emailed a statement calling the government’s timeline “workable.”

“The American Lighting Association (ALA) and its members welcome the adoption of the 45 lumens per watt backstop requirement,” Weems said. “Furthermore, the progressive enforcement approach being used for the new standard is practical and much appreciated.”

Andrew deLaski, executive director of the nonprofit Appliance Standards Awareness Project, said some major retailers such as Ikea and Costco have already stopped selling incandescent lightbulbs. Others should be able to comply with the new rules more quickly than the government’s timeline allows, he said.

“These changes have definitely been a long time coming,” deLaski said. “What this means is that all consumers, no matter where they shop, will have access to a range of efficient LED choices that’ll save them money, light up just like the bulbs they replace and last 10 times longer. That’s welcome news with energy prices going up.”

If not for Donald Trump, the United States would have banned the sale of incandescent lightbulbs two years ago, with only a handful of exceptions. A 2007 law signed by President George W. Bush made saving energy from lightbulbs a national goal. But before new energy-efficiency standards could take effect, the Trump administration rolled them back on the grounds that they were “not economically justified.”

At the time, the Natural Resources Defense Council advocacy group said the rollback could boost energy consumption by an amount equal to the output of 30 large power plants.

But Trump decried more efficient lightbulbs, telling House Republican lawmakers in 2019, “The light’s no good. I always look orange.”

Each month that incandescent bulbs remain on the shelves equates to about 800,000 tons of preventable carbon dioxide emissions that enter the atmosphere over those products’ lifetime, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

The lightbulb rollback was part of the Trump administration’s government-wide war on federal regulations. Trump officials also weakened standards for dishwashers and created a new class of less-efficient washing machines and clothes dryers. Existing standards periodically come due for updates, and the Trump administration failed to act on dozens of overdue upgrades for household appliances such as gas furnaces and freezers.

Biden’s Energy Department has restored many of the original efficiency standards, reversing the Trump-era rules for dishwashers, washing machines and clothes dryers. The department also closed a loophole, created under Trump, that increased how much water could be used in a shower by allowing multiple nozzles to carry equal amounts of water at once. Administration officials aim to complete 100 energy-efficiency actions this year.

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