New Energy Efficiency Rules Ban Incandescent Light Bulbs: What to Know
Aug 28, 2023
New efficiency rules, more than a decade in the making, have taken effect, relegating Edison’s glowing orbs to the history books.
By Hiroko Tabuchi
Hiroko Tabuchi has reported on the climate toll of light bulbs, stoves and many other household appliances.
It’s the end of an era. In America, the incandescent light is no more (with a few exceptions).
Under new energy efficiency rules that took effect Tuesday, shoppers in the United States will no longer be able to purchase most incandescent bulbs, marking the demise of a technology patented by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s.
Taking their place are LED lights, which — love them or hate them — have already transformed America’s energy landscape.
They’ve driven down electricity demand in American homes, saving people money. And by using less power, LEDs have also helped lower the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases, which warm the planet and are a major cause of climate change. LED stands for light emitting diodes.
The new efficiency standard announced by the Biden administration requires light bulbs to meet a minimum standard of producing 45 lumens per watt. (A lumen is a measurement of brightness, and incandescents typically produce far less than that per watt.) An accompanying rule change applies the new standards to a wider universe of light bulbs.
Neither rule is an explicit ban on incandescents. And a few specialized kinds of incandescent bulbs — like those that go inside ovens, and bug lights — are exempt. But most if not all other incandescents will struggle to meet the new efficiency standards, and the same goes for a more recent generation of halogen lights.
“Energy-efficient lighting is the big energy story that nobody is 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 one that gets 130 m.p.g.,” he said.
With the new rules in place, the Department of Energy expects Americans to collectively save nearly $3 billion a year on their utility bills. In the past, a knock on LEDs was that they were more expensive to buy, but prices for LED bulbs have fallen rapidly to near parity with incandescents.
The cost savings could come as a boost particularly to lower-income households, which spend a larger proportion 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 cut carbon dioxide emissions by 222 million metric tons the Energy Department said, which it compared to the emissions from 28 million homes in one year.
LEDs have other advantages. Consumers can expect less running to the store for new bulbs or teetering on foot ladders to replace them: LED light bulbs last 25 to 50 times longer than their incandescent counterparts.
The new regulations may go over 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 even noticed,” he said.
The shift from traditional incandescent bulbs to LED lights brings to a close a political debate that once was a Republican rallying point, much like the Trump-era “Make Dishwashers Great Again” partisan fight, and the more recent political sparring over gas stoves.
Congress established the first national light bulb efficiency standards in 2007, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Starting in 2012, the law required new bulbs to use 28 percent less power than existing incandescent lights, kicking off the beginning of the end for older designs.
“The government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy,” Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, said in 2012, introducing the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act” to repeal the federal requirement.
Those attempts failed. But the Trump administration temporarily stalled a second phase of the 2007 lighting efficiency rules, which were scheduled to go into effect in 2020.
In blocking those rules — one of more than 100 environment-related rules rolled back during the Trump presidency — Mr. Trump appeared to heed the concerns of manufacturers, whose trade group argued that a ban would disrupt retail. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association also argued that people were already making the switch.
According to NEMA statistics, about 20 percent of light bulb sales were incandescents as of the first quarter of 2022.The association didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Europe is a step ahead, having phased out incandescent lights in 2012. In 2021, the European Union said it would also ban all fluorescent lighting next month.
Environmental groups and experts have long pushed for a phaseout 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 made up of a swirl of fluorescent tubing — meet the new efficiency rules. Few are still sold, however, and separate efficiency standards proposed but not yet enacted by the Biden administration could soon effectively ban those, too.
Hiroko Tabuchi is an investigative reporter on the Climate desk, reporting widely on money, influence and misinformation in climate policy. More about Hiroko Tabuchi