Michael Hiltzik: Trump's attack on lightbulb standards is his flimsiest environmental rollback yet

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

In a speech during the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney jibed, "the government would have banned Thomas Edison's lightbulb. Oh, by the way, they just did, didn't they?" (Romney blamed Obama's regulators, but of course it was George W. Bush's signature that set the rules in motion.)

The truth is that the lightbulb rules made sense on a macro as well as a household scale. Reducing power consumption in the home by replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs consuming 25% to 30% less power for similar lighting would save the equivalent of the output of 25 to 30 large power plants of 500 megawatts each, the Congressional Research Service calculated.

The Department of Energy estimated that the average 60-watt incandescent bulb cost a family $4.80 in electricity over a year based on two hours a day of use and would last 1,000 hours, the equivalent of about a month and a half of 24-hour use.

An LED bulb emitting the same light would cost $1 a year and last 25,000 hours, the equivalent of nearly three years of constant use. LEDs also have come way down in price, and can be found at retail stores for as little as $2 to $3 each. That makes them competitive with incandescent bulbs, which run to about $1 each -- if you can even find them today on store shelves.

Notwithstanding the Tea Party persiflage about freedom of choice at the lightbulb counter, it's probably more appropriate to see the issue as part and parcel of conservatives' broader war on energy efficiency policies.

In July, for instance, Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill that would bail out four uneconomical nuclear and coal plants while hacking away at his state's once-pioneering renewable energy standards and ending them outright in 2026. The bill was passed at the behest of entrenched nuclear and coal plant operators.

The Trump administration has mounted its own war on energy efficiency. As we've reported, the tactics include rolling back automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards on which California has been a leader, attempting to invalidate the state's cap-and-trade program limiting greenhouse gases, and moving to weaken Obama-era clean power standards governing coal plants. As Trump said on Sept. 13 at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, "we ended the last administration's heartless war on American energy."

Yet Trump's effort to turn back the clock on energy -- promoting oil, gas and coal and aching for the halcyon days of incandescent lighting, can't work in the real world. The coal industry is terminal; on Oct. 29 the giant Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy, the third coal company to go bust this year alone.

What Trump's case against the lightbulb rules shares with his other retrograde energy policies is the absence of any recognition that the rules' gains in economics and public welfare and health outweigh their upfront costs, much less their constraints on individual "freedom."


It's not as if the administration doesn't know about those gains. As California and the other states observed in their lawsuit, the Department of Energy's own analysis projects that the lightbulb rules will generate a cumulative savings for consumers of more than $2 trillion in utility bills through 2030 and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that promotes climate change, by 700 million metric tons.

That's equivalent to "taking nearly 150 million cars off the road for a year, or more than enough to meet the electricity needs of every American household for one year," the states noted.

In light of those estimates, what are the arguments in favor of rolling back the rules? There are none. The lightbulb industry itself has moved on, as one can see by the scarcity of incandescent bulbs in the retail chain. The inconvenience of moving to LED bulbs is minimal, especially given the longer term savings.

Trump had no rationale other than riling up a constituency dubious of any government intervention. Thanks are due to California and its fellow states for shining a spotlight on yet another half-baked rule-making adventure at the White House.

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