Leland Teschler | executive editor
Headlines were made recently when two national associations dropped a lawsuit attempting to squash light bulb efficiency standards in California. The California standards supposedly save Californians billions of dollars on their energy bills and avoid millions of tons of carbon-warming pollution.
The suit was brought by NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) and the American Lighting Association. At issue were lighting regulations that had been expanded to cover specialty light bulbs like those used in bathroom vanities and recessed lighting, as well as candle-shaped lights. The DOE recently eliminated these bulbs from national lighting efficiency standards.
Green advocacy groups crowed about this legal development. Said the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency Standards at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The lighting industry finally came to its senses and discontinued its desperate efforts to block California’s common-sense light bulb efficiency standards, which are poised to save consumers billions of dollars on their utility bills.”
Hold on there, Kemosabe. The thing to note about specialty light bulbs is that they are frequently in places where they’re not turned on all that often. As is in any energy-consuming application, energy costs are only one part of the equation. The initial cost of the bulb also factors in. If an energy-efficient bulb costs sufficiently more than a less-efficient version, buyers may be better off spending more on energy, particularly if the bulb isn’t used much.
This reality hit home for me because of a light bulb in a tiny cellar under the porch of my house. That bulb is on for a total of about ten minutes a year. For a while, it looked as though I would be forced to replace the inexpensive incandescent bulb lighting it (at about 50 cents each) with an awful compact fluorescent light bulb (at a few dollars), back when there was talk of regulating all incandescent bulbs out of existence. Fortunately, cooler regulatory heads prevailed.
At a total on-time of ten minutes annually, it’s doubtful that a CFL in my cellar would have paid back its additional cost in my lifetime, and I plan to live a long time. The cost equation for energy-efficient lighting has improved since those days – you can find 60-W equivalent A19 LED bulbs for less than a dollar if you shop around. But I’m pretty sure most consumers would rather choose the kind of light bulb installed in their own home, rather than let some bureaucrat do it.
The irony is LED bulb replacements for specialty incandescents are readily available now, no thanks to regulators. For example, I was able to find candle-shaped LED bulbs for less than three bucks each online. The 40-W incandescent versions seem to run around a dollar. If you’re curious about the payback time for these LED bulbs, we did a back-of-the-envelope calculation using the 16.7 cents/kWh average power cost in California. It turns out that a 4.5-W, three-dollar LED candle bulb pulls even in cost with a 40-W, one-dollar incandescent version after about 336 hours of use at those rates. That works out to being switched on eight hours daily for about 42 days.
Those economics will probably convince most consumers to make the switch to LEDs, with or without regulations in force. Thus the $2.4 billion that the Natural Resources Defense Council claims Californians will save on annual utility bills thanks to regulations would probably happen even if regulators sat on their hands.
And that brings us back to the recently dropped lawsuit. I suspect NEMA and the ALA looked at prices of specialty LED bulbs, shrugged, and decided to forget the whole thing. Besides, California’s lighting efficiency regulations are completely unenforceable unless, of course, the State plans to somehow prevent online vendors from shipping incandescent bulbs to Californians.
If that’s the plan, good luck.