Through mix of federal standards and consumer actions, LED bulbs are growing fast
Way back in October 2007, candidate Barack Obama pledged to "immediately sign a law that begins to phase out all incandescent light bulbs." About two months later, President George W. Bush signed a bill to do that -- the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
So for the purposes of this promise, we won't focus on whether Obama signed such a bill as president, but rather whether the goal was advanced.
While there has been some opposition to this transition -- particularly in some conservative circles, not always accurately presenting the details of the shift -- Obama, aided by some important advances in technology, has overseen some significant progress in pushing the country toward the goal.
Under Obama, the Energy Department "has moved forward with a few rules clarifying various aspects of how the law operates, working to update the requirements and close some loopholes," said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Nadel said that "the final rules are being prepared," though time is running out for the Obama administration to enact them.
Already, the administration enacted standards that, over a couple of years, effectively phased out old-fashioned 100-watt bulbs, followed by 75-watt bulbs and then lower varieties. This didn't lead to the elimination of incandescent bulbs entirely, but it did require such bulbs to be reconstituted so that they were more energy efficient.
Perhaps the most significant change since we last checked on this promise in July 2009 (and rated it Compromise) is the growing popularity of LED (or light-emitting diode) light bulbs.
The initial technology consumers were offered to replace incandescent bulbs were compact fluorescent bulbs, which are the residential equivalents of the long, rod-shaped bulbs widely used in offices. However, consumers never fell in love with compact fluorescents, for several reasons. Many consumers felt the light wasn't as warm as traditional incandescent bulbs, and they were irritated that compact fluorescents didn't reach full intensity immediately after being switched on. And because they contained mercury, disposal was more complicated.
The advent of LED bulbs solved most of these problems, and consumer response has been more positive.
In the first quarter of 2016, LED bulbs accounted for 26 percent of bulbs sold, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. That's a big increase from essentially zero in just a couple of years. The Energy Department projected back in 2014 that LEDs are expected to nearly double to 48 percent within the next four years, and will account for 84 percent by 2030.
The prices for LEDs remain higher than for incandescent bulbs, but prices are dropping, and they should fall further as the number of purchases grow. Already, when we prepared this update, it was possible to order a 16-pack of LED bulbs made by Philips from Amazon.com for less than $2.00 a bulb.
And the life-cycle costs can be substantial: LEDs are about four times more efficient and last up to 12 times longer than incandescent bulbs. "A typical household replacing inefficient bulbs with those meeting the proposed standards will save about $90 annually on its electric bill, which is like getting nearly a month of free electricity every year," according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
Obama certainly doesn't merit full credit for all of this happening -- the original law was signed under Bush, and much of the progress stems from the march of technology and consumer decisions. Still, Obama's administration pushed forward key regulations that gave the upstart technologies an edge over incandescent bulbs, and the transition away from incandescents seems well on its way. We rate this a Promise Kept.
Barack Obama, remarks in Portsmouth, N.H., on clean energy, Oct. 8, 2007
U.S. Energy Department, "Energy Savings Forecast of Solid State Lighting in General Illumination Applications," September 2014
Appliance Standards Awareness Project, "Light Bulb Efficiency Standards," June 2016
National Geographic Energy Blog, "U.S. Phase-Out of Incandescent Light Bulbs Continues in 2014 with 40-, 60-Watt Varieties," Dec. 31, 2013
Email interview with Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Dec. 16, 2016
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.
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