In the last days of President Barack Obama's administration, the Energy Department issued new rules attempting to make a wide swath of the lightbulbs illuminating U.S. homes and businesses more energy efficient. The move was cheered by environmentalists keen on the energy-saving potential but booed by conservatives who say it is not a bright idea to stop consumers from buying the lighting of their choice.
Now, the Trump administration appears to be ready to side with those incandescent die-hards, according to a document that was published on -- but then deleted from -- the Energy Department's website.
The document, discovered and saved by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, indicates the Energy Department is preparing to repeal Obama-era rules that broadened the number of lightbulbs that must meet strict energy efficiency standards set to take effect in 2020.
“It’s certainly one of the biggest for energy efficiency standards, setting aside the clean-car standards,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
The notice said the Obama administration “misconstrued existing law” with its January 2017 rules. The Energy Department declined to comment on the document, which may have been inadvertently published last month on the department's website before it was ready to roll out the new policy. “The Department does not comment on ongoing rulemakings beyond what is publicly available in the Unified Agenda published twice a year,” spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said.
In 2007, Congress passed into law new efficiency requirements for general lightbulbs, with strict requirements set to take effect in 2020. Bulbs with light-emitting diodes (known better as LEDs) and compact fluorescent lamps (known for their tubes with a twisty shape) can easily meet the 2020 standard of 45 lumens per watt, according to deLaski. But the traditional incandescent bulbs on the market cannot.
So manufacturers of those bulbs pushed back against what they called “midnight” rules by the Obama administration. They argued the previous leadership wanted to apply a standard Congress meant for regular lightbulbs — the ones with the traditional pear-like shape — to many unconventional breeds of bulbs.
“All consumers of lighting are familiar with the look of the standard general service light bulb that Congress had in mind,” the National Electrical Manufacturers Association wrote to Rick Perry in March 2017 shortly after he was confirmed as Trump's energy secretary. “These are specialty lamps, they are not standard lamps.”
Energy efficiency is a low-profile but important part of the Energy Department's portfolio. Like many other countries, the United States wastes a tremendous amount of energy — two-thirds, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — produced by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Standards set by the department for washing machines, refrigerators and all sorts of other consumer and industrial equipment attempt to capture more of that energy radiated away as heat rather than used for work.
But it is the lightbulb that is the “flagship” of the department's energy efficiency efforts, according to Dan Reicher, former head of the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under President Bill Clinton. “When it's all said and done,” Reicher said, “the first thing people think about when they think about energy efficiency is the lightbulb.”
The newfangled lightbulbs in particular have been held up — figuratively and at times literally, as Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) did once on the House floor — as an example of the federal government overreaching by forcing consumers to buy energy efficient products.
“The bill does one thing, Madame Speaker,” Poe said of the 2007 law a year after it was passed. “It controls the type of lightbulbs that all Americans must use.”
But groups like the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group that researches and promotes energy efficiency and that co-founded the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, counter that whatever freedom is lost is outweighed by the tremendous energy savings modern bulbs bring. According to the group, the energy savings lost if the last-minute Obama-era rules go away could power about 7 million homes for a year.
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.
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