Bush Era Law is Helping to Achieve Sustainability in Lighting

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Nope, that was not a typo. In 2007 President Bush signed a law, passed by the new Democratic congress, called the Energy Independence and Security Act. This act included a whole host of efficiency measures, one of the most famous being the creation of efficiency standards for household bulbs. This so called "ban on incandescents" became a rallying cry for some conservative legislators and activists but despite passing several bills to effectively overturn the standards the law has remained effectively intact. Energy demand for lighting had already begun to fall before the law was even passed, driven to a large extent by technological change which is also what has created the conditions for an even bigger decrease in the coming years. So while the long term trend of less energy needed for lighting is due to technology, US federal policies are helping to accelerate the process.

Push-Pull Policies

In simplest terms we have policies which push consumers out of the least efficient bulbs and pull them to more efficient ones. The pulling towards more efficiency is done in at least 3 ways:

  1. Research into more efficient bulbs. E.g. LEDs which recently won the Nobel prize.
  2. Energy Star Labeling is given only to bulbs which are significantly more efficient than average1)The level of efficiency required continues to increase.
  3. Subsidies are given directly for consumer purchases of high efficiency bulbs by some utilities and/or state governments. In Arizona it is an extremely random process where by the utilities subsidize some bulbs at some retailers but it is hard to ever know which stores, which bulbs and for how much :(.2)This is the list of participating retailers for the entire metro Phoenix area!
On the other-hand the policy of eliminating the least efficient bulbs functions like a push to the average efficiency of light bulbs in use. Specifically, the 2007 law required that by 2014 light bulbs had to be at least 25% more efficient to be sold, a standard that traditional incandescent bulbs could not meet.3)As always there are exceptions--many, many types of bulbs were exempted. A much bigger jump of 200% greater efficiency is called for by 2020. Did this policy work? We don't yet know, but the DOE certainly forecasted that it would. If we go back to look at the graph I made to illustrate falling energy demand for lighting, we see two steep drops projected in electricity use when these policies come into place. This push mechanism is particularly powerful because incandescent light bulbs that are in use will only last a couple months and have to be replaced with more efficient alternatives.4)Compare this to trying to improve car efficiency for vehicles that will be in use for up to two decades. Or buildings which easily last a century!

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Current Lighting Policies are Anti-Poor

Unfortunately, current policies promoting lighting efficiency are not truly Sustainable policies, because rather than benefiting those less fortunate they actually ask them to shoulder an increased burden. Incandescent bulbs are cheap and ubiquitous and long timeline paybacks are pointless to someone who is struggling to survive day to day. These affordable bulbs are being taken away. Meanwhile, the bulbs which are being subsidized are still at least 10x more expensive than what used to be the cheapest bulbs on the market. This is doubly unfortunate because a policy which gets LED bulbs into poor households could for a one time expense, reduce energy demand and save poor families money every month for more than a decade.

If we gave the 15 million poorest household 5 LED bulbs at a cost of $10 each5)One would hope the government could negotiate a better price than the retail market but we must include some administrative costs, though it could easily piggyback on current government programs--e.g. a light bulb with your food stamps. That would bring us in at a cost of $750 million but would save these families $450 million every single year for at least a decade!

Lighting policy is reasonably successful but it is time to go the extra mile and enact policies to Achieving Sustainability!

The Series: Achieving Sustainability in Lighting

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The level of efficiency required continues to increase.
2. This is the list of participating retailers for the entire metro Phoenix area!
3. As always there are exceptions--many, many types of bulbs were exempted.
4. Compare this to trying to improve car efficiency for vehicles that will be in use for up to two decades. Or buildings which easily last a century!
5. One would hope the government could negotiate a better price than the retail market but we must include some administrative costs, though it could easily piggyback on current government programs--e.g. a light bulb with your food stamps.
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