Light bulbs in spotlight as senators lambaste US efficiency standards

A Senate hearing on Thursday produced fireworks over light bulbs, as conservatives urged repeal of US energy-efficiency standards they see as anticonsumer and paternalistic.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Jan. 21 file photo, a 100-watt incandescent light bulb is shown at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles.
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The lowly light bulb came in for closer congressional scrutiny Thursday, amid claims that federal energy-efficiency standards are a dim bulb idea.

At the center of the matter is the BULB Act, legislation that has 27 cosponsors in the Senate and a companion bill in the House. It would repeal the part of a 2007 law that toughened energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs, lambasting the standard as overregulation that is paternalistic and anticonsumer.

The hearing on the legislation, like the incandescent bulb at the center of the fight, produced about 95 percent heat and 5 percent light. Even as freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a tea party favorite, argued against the need for efficiency standards for light bulbs, the industry's representatives said the 2007 law had improved their competitiveness and created more consumer choice.

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Lighting represents about 10 percent of a typical US household’s electric bill, and new-style light bulbs that meet standards set by Congress in 2007 could save consumers nearly $6 billion in 2015, Kathleen Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency, told the committee. One household that upgraded 15 inefficient incandescent light bulbs could save as much as $50 per year, she said.

That did not sway supporters of the Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act, who characterized their bill as a bid to throw off heavy-handed federal regulation and a government-knows-all approach, while widening consumer choice.

"You're really anti-choice on every other consumer item that you've listed here, including light bulbs, refrigerators, toilets, you name it," Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky chided Ms. Hogen. "You can't go around your house without being told what to buy. You restrict my purchases. You don't care about my choices. You don't care about the consumer, frankly. You raise the cost of all the items with all your rules, all your notions that you know what's best for me."

Senator Paul also declared that the light bulb and other efficiency standards for appliances, beside being anticonsumer choice, had sent jobs overseas.

"I find it insulting that a lot of these products you're going to make us buy – and you won't let us buy what we want to buy," he said. "These things you want us to buy are often made in foreign countries. You ship jobs overseas."

Appliance and lighting industry representatives and efficiency experts, however, testified that tougher energy-efficiency standards had prompted an industrywide retooling. That retooling, they said, created many thousands of new jobs in the US and increased consumer choice of light bulbs.

"We are proud that our industry is one of the very few US industries that enjoys an over $2 billion positive balance of trade," said Stephen Yurek, president of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, a trade association. "We build equipment here in North America and export it to nations around the world." The manufacturing side of the industry, he said, accounts for 250,000 American jobs, plus 1 million more maintainance, distribution, and installation jobs.

Light bulb makers have a similar story, said Kyle Pitsor of the National Electric Manufacturers Association (NEMA). The BULB bill would be bad for US light bulb makers, who have already upgraded factories to meet new standards and would face a patchwork of state regulations if the uniform federal 2007 standard were rolled back, he said.

"NEMA does not support its repeal," said Mr. Pitsor. "It's a common misunderstanding, but these standards do not ban incandescent bulbs, nor do they mandate the use of compact fluorescent bulbs.... Consumers will still be able to purchase a general service incandescent bulb," but one that will be 28 percent more efficient.

The old incandescent bulb is definitely an energy hog: Just 5 percent of the electricity it uses goes to light the bulb and the rest produces heat. Incandescent bulbs are burning in most of the 3 billion to 4 billion screw-in sockets in US homes and businesses, the US Department of Energy reports. New-style bulbs generally cost more, but they also last longer.

If all homes and businesses used bulbs that are 35 to 75 percent more efficient, they would collectively save almost $10 billion a year in energy costs. The switch would cut energy demand enough to eliminate the need to build dozens of coal-fired power plants, adds the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

"The federal appliance and equipment efficiency standards program is a great energy-efficiency success story, with Congress adopting new standards in each of the last three decades on a bipartisan basis," Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, said in his prepared remarks. And it has been popular, too.

Despite negative publicity about an incandescent lamp “ban,” a recent USA Today survey found that 61 percent of Americans said the 2007 legislation was a "good" law versus 31 percent who called it "bad," he said.

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