US Congress is poised to weaken light-bulb efficiency legislation

Dec. 17, 2011
A year-end spending bill in the US Congress could impact the 2007 legislation that imposes strict energy-efficiency guidelines on light bulbs beginning in 2012.

The US Congress is close to approval of a massive spending bill that includes a rider eliminating US Department of Energy (DOE) funding that was intended to enforce the 2007 US legislation that has been incorrectly referred to as an "incandescent light-bulb ban." While there have been reports that the rider will eliminate the legislation, the National Electrical Manufactures Association (NEMA) has taken the position that the legislation will remain in effect and that law-abiding companies will follow the guidelines approved in 2007.

The light-bulb-specific activity comes just weeks before the first stage of the regulations would impact the manufacture of 100W incandescent lamps for sale in the US. The Democratic and Republican parties are using the so-called omnibus spending bill, passage of which is necessary to keep the US government funded and functioning into 2012, to advance partisan initiatives. Many Republicans, especially in the radical Tea Party faction, have previously sought and failed to overturn the light-bulb legislation despite the fact that it was enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.

The Republican-sought riders attacked a number of environmental initiatives, although President Obama and Democratic leaders have worked to limit the environmental impact. The rider eliminating lamp-efficiency regulations remains in the bill at this time. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Unfortunately, the bill still contains some damaging riders, including one that will weaken air-pollution controls in the Arctic and another that will block funding to enforce new light-bulb-efficiency standards that were signed into law by George W. Bush."

The Hill website on its E2 Wire energy- and environment-focused blog reported Thursday night that both the US House of Representatives and Senate tentatively agreed to a $1 trillion spending bill that blocks the Energy Department light-bulb-efficiency standards.

In actuality, according to NEMA, it is only the funding for enforcement that is impacted. "Our view is that the standards are still in effect," said Joseph Higbee, director of marketing communications at NEMA. "The standards are the law and the manufacturers will follow the law."

The US House will vote on the bill on Friday, December 16. The US Senate will likely vote on the bill on either Saturday or Sunday. Ironically the more controversial part of the bill is an extension of middle- and lower-class tax benefits, but partisanship politics invariably intertwines unrelated measures that should ideally be handled independently. As mentioned earlier, the Republicans failed this past summer to explicitly repeal the 2007 bill.

The legislation will initially impact lamps with 1700-lm output (typical of 100W-incandescent lamps) beginning in January, requiring 30% more efficiency. Incandescent lamps would not likely meet those guidelines, making LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) or compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) the primary consumer choice on store shelves.

It remains to be seen just what type of impact the rider may have. Even if the rider truly blocked the prior legislation, lighting manufacturers and retailers have been preparing for years for the change. Presumably the supply chain is poised to predominantly sell the more efficient lamps.

Indeed the Republican-led last-grasp effort to diminish the impact of the legislation could cost companies heavily. "Manufacturers have invested millions of dollars in meeting the regulations," said NEMA's Higbee.

Higbee correctly points out that the manufacturers have developed hybrid incandescent/halogen lamps that meet the new standards, as well as LED and CFL lamps. That is one reason that Higbee said, "We [NEMA] were opposed to the rider."

Higbee also believes that any delay in enforcement is bad for the lighting industry. He said, "It brings regulatory uncertainty to the industry."