New energy efficiency rules ban incandescent bulbs: What you need to know

It’s the end of an era. In America, the incandescent light is no more (with few exceptions).

Under new energy efficiency rules that took effect Tuesday, shoppers in the United States will no longer be able to buy most incandescent light bulbs, marking the demise of a technology patented by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s.

In their place are LED lights, which — love them or hate them — have already transformed America’s energy landscape.

They have lowered the demand for electricity in American homes, saving people money. And by using less power, LEDs have also helped lower the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases, which warm the planet and are a major cause of climate change. LED stands for light emitting diodes.

That new efficiency standard announced by the Biden administration requires bulbs to meet a minimum standard of producing 45 lumens per watts. (A lumen is a measurement of brightness, and incandescent bulbs typically produce far less than that per watt.) An accompanying rule change applies the new standards to a wider universe of bulbs.

None of the rules is an explicit ban on incandescent lamps. And a few specialized kinds of light bulbs — like those that go inside furnaces and emergency lights — are exempt. But most, if not all, other incandescents will struggle to meet the new efficiency standards, and so will a newer generation of halogen bulbs.

“Energy-efficient lighting is the big energy story that nobody’s talking about,” said Lucas Davis, an energy economist at the Haas School of Business, part of the University of California, Berkeley. “Going from an incandescent to an LED is like replacing a car that gets 25 miles per gallon with another that gets 130 mpg,” he said.

With the new rules in place, the Department of Energy expects Americans to collectively save nearly $3 billion a year on their electric bills. In the past, a knock on LEDs was that they were more expensive to buy, but the prices of LED bulbs have dropped rapidly to near parity with incandescent bulbs.

The cost savings can come as a boost, especially for lower-income households that spend a larger portion of their income on utilities. Research has shown that retailers in poorer neighborhoods had also been among the slowest to phase out energy-guzzling bulbs.

Over the next three decades, the rules will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 222 million tons, the Energy Department said, which it compared to the emissions from 28 million homes in a year.

LEDs have other advantages. Consumers can expect less running to the store for new bulbs or teetering on stepladders to replace them: LED bulbs last 25 to 50 times longer than their incandescent counterparts.

The new rules may pass with little fanfare. Over the past year, most retailers have taken inefficient bulbs off their shelves in anticipation of the rule, said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, which advocates for appliance efficiency rules.

“I don’t think most people have noticed,” he said.

The shift from traditional incandescent bulbs to LED lights ends a political debate that was once a Republican rallying point, like the Trump-era “Make Dishwashers Great Again” partisan battle and the more recent political sparring over gas stoves.

Congress established the first national light bulb efficiency standards in 2007, which were signed into law by President George W. Bush. Starting in 2012, the law required new bulbs to use 28 percent less power than existing incandescents, marking the beginning of the end for older designs.

“The government has no business telling a person what kind of light bulb to buy,” Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, said in 2012introducing the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act” to repeal the federal requirement.

These attempts failed. But the Trump administration temporarily halted a second phase of the 2007 lighting efficiency rules that were scheduled to take effect in 2020.

In blocking those rules – one of more than 100 environment-related rules rolled back during Trump’s presidency – Mr Trump appeared to heed the concerns of manufacturers, whose trade group argued that a ban would disrupt retail trade. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association also claimed that people were already making the switch.

According to NEMA statistics, around 20 percent of pear sales were incandescent lamps from the first quarter of 2022. The association did not respond to a request for comment.

Europe is one step ahead, having phased out incandescent lamps in 2012. By 2021, the EU said it would also ban all fluorescent lighting next month.

Environmental groups and experts have long pushed for a phase-out of fluorescent lights, which are less efficient than LED lights and also contain mercury, a toxic metal.

In the United States, compact fluorescent lights — the bulbs that consist of a swirl of fluorescent tubes — meet the new efficiency rules. However, only a few are sold and differ in efficiency standards suggested but not yet adopted by the Biden administration, may soon effectively ban them as well.

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