The Obameter

Phase out incandescent light bulbs

"I will immediately sign a law that begins to phase out all incandescent light bulbs - a measure that will save American consumers $6 billion a year on their electric bills."


Obama makes light bulbs more energy efficient

Light bulbs beware: President Barack Obama has announced major changes in lighting standards that advocates say will effectively phase out the least efficient bulbs.

"One of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to make our economy stronger and cleaner is to make our economy more energy efficient,” said Obama in a June 29, 2009, announcement that fluorescent tube lamps (most commonly found in offices and stores) and conventional incandescent reflector lamps (think track lighting in your kitchen) will become more efficient starting in 2012.

The administration says that these changes will reduce carbon emissions by 594 million tons between 2012 and 2042 and save consumers $1 billion to $4 billion in the same amount of time.

The announcement reflects this promise Obama made on the campaign trail:

"I will immediately sign a law that begins to phase out all incandescent light bulbs — a measure that will save American consumers $6 billion a year on their electric bills," Obama said in an Oct. 7, 2007 speech on energy efficiency.

We already rated this promise as No Action because, as far was we could tell, there was no bill in Congress to phase out all incandescents, and therefore no law for Obama to sign. At the time, advocates of new efficiency standards told us that Obama would have been better off saying he would get rid of the least efficient bulbs, not all incandescent bulbs.

As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, traditional pear-shaped incandescents are already on track to become more efficient. Obama's effort extends those rules to conventional incandescent reflector lamps, the cone-shaped bulbs most commonly used in recessed lights and track lighting. Other incandescents, like some used to illuminate driveways or sidewalks, will remain on the market.

We asked Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, whether the new rules represented some sort of political compromise.

"No, I don't think it does," he said. "It takes a significant step towards getting the rest" of the inefficient bulbs that weren't included in the 2007 law, he said. "We're getting incandescents down to a small level."

The new efficiency rules represent the biggest energy-saving effort ever announced by the Department of Energy, Nadel added.

Back in March when we first wrote about the light bulb promise, we struggled with how to rate it, and we still are struggling. Obama is not trying to take all incandescents off the market, but he is trying to make most of them more efficient — and energy efficiency advocates say that's a big step. In 2007, however, it seems Obama had more ambitious plans for light bulbs. Maybe Obama backpedaled or maybe he spoke carelessly; either way it's not a Promise Kept. As a result, we rate this one a Compromise, not because of any clear indication that Obama had to backtrack from his original position to broker a deal, but because it's the most accurate measurement we have to gauge the progress he's made on the issue, even if it's not what he originally promised.


Department of Energy, announcement on new efficiency standards , accessed June 29, 2009

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, press release on new bulb rules , accessed June 30, 2009

ENERGY STAR, explaination of light bulb rules , accessed July 1, 2009

Interview with Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

No action yet on "immediate" light bulb promise

The other day, our random Obama To Do List included this promise: Barack Obama said he would "immediately" sign a law to phase out incandescent light bulbs.


For the record, incandescents are considered less energy efficient than the newer compact fluorescent bulbs, which tend to have a distinctive squiggly shape.

We searched bills in Congress and other databases to see if banning incandescent light bulbs was on the agenda. We couldn't find anything. And Obama can't sign a law if Congress hasn't passed it.

We figured light bulb reform was taking a backseat to the economy and larger energy initiatives like cap-and-trade (a promise we rated In the Works ).

As we dug into this item a bit more, though, we found some unusual wrinkles.

Obama made this promise in a speech on energy policy on Oct. 7, 2007. Perhaps light bulbs were on his mind, because just a few months before, he had voted in favor of a bill that called for increased efficiency standards on light bulbs. Roughly two months after Obama's speech, President George W. Bush signed the bill, now the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The current law does not ban incandescents, but rather says most light bulbs must meet increased efficiency standards by 2012. The standards themselves, which were developed later, include several exceptions for incandescent light bulbs, including three-way bulbs, colored lights, bug lights or plant lights.

Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, which advocates for energy efficiency, said he thought Obama was referring to that law when he said he would phase out "all incandescent light bulbs." He noted that similar campaigns to increase efficiency standards have been promoted with the tag line "ban the bulb," even though they technically do not outlaw specific types of bulbs.

"He should have said, 'We want to get rid of the least efficient light bulbs,' " deLaski said.

If incandescent bulbs can meet new efficiency standards — and General Electric has been working on just such a project — there's no reason they should be banned, he said.

This all is interesting stuff, but it also left us scratching our heads over our ruling. Should we rate it Compromise because the existing law that Obama supported includes so many exceptions? Should we delete the item from the database since it was at least partly accomplished before Obama took office?

We're rating it No Action for now, because under the Obama administration, there's been No Action. We invite reader response on what the ultimate rating should be.


Energy Department, Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs , accessed March 6, 2009

Energy Department, Question and Answer of regulation of incandescent light bulbs , March 6, 2009

Library of Congress Thomas, The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007

Interview with Andrew deLaski of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project