A Brighter Idea: The Untold Story Of The CFL (Part 3 of 3)

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to present this article which is part 3 of a series being run by Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Peter Miller and you can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

V. Sealing the Deal: Federal Standards

In January 2012, a federal standard became effective that requires all light bulbs sold in the United States to be 28 percent more efficient than a normal incandescent light bulb, and to continue to improve over time. Although CFLs are far from the only high-efficiency lighting option, their reliability, availability, and cost-effectiveness helped make this standard a political reality. The ULP and other incentive programs helped consumers recognize they could save money, energy, and the environment merely by purchasing a different kind of lightbulb and the lighting industry profited from the change in buying habits.

Nonetheless, partisan opposition to government regulation prompted the most recent Congress to prevent DOE from actually enforcing the standard. Nonetheless, the energy-efficient bulbs required by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) are expected to save the average American household $100 to more than $200 a year when fully implemented in 2020 while eliminating the need for 30 new power plants and preventing the equivalent of the carbon dioxide air pollution caused by 17 million cars.

In survey after survey, consumers and consumer groups declared they desired more-efficient bulbs that didn’t waste 90 percent of their energy. The lighting industry also wholeheartedly supports the new standards and has invested millions of dollars retrofitting and expanding U.S. plants, and hiring new workers to meet the standards. The major lighting trade group, NEMA (National Electric Manufacturers Association), reports more than 2,000 new jobs were created in American factories as a result of the new standards.

energy efficient lighting

image via Shutterstock

Despite some confusion in the public perpetrated by the forces seeking to totally overturn the standards at the last minute, EISA does not require that CFLs be used – but that all lightbulbs be more efficient. Consumers can continue to use any type of bulb they like – incandescent, compact fluorescent, halogen, or LED – and the bulbs will give off the same amount of light as before but use less energy. As a result of the standard, for example, the lighting industry has developed energy-saving halogen incandescent bulbs that are about 25 percent more efficient and can last up to three times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs.

However, for those people who are interested in saving money, CFLs offer the biggest bang for the buck because a typical CFL bulb will save a consumer $30 to $50 over its six-year lifetime, and often is purchased in a multipack for less than $2 a bulb.

The good news is that CFLs and all forms of lightbulbs will continue to become more efficient because the law requires new bulbs to use 65 percent less energy by 2020. The lighting industry is voluntarily moving in that direction and there will be efforts to get Congress to reverse the enforcement restriction.

Projections are that in the next 30 years, the standard will lead to savings of 14 quads of energy – or the total energy consumption of 75 million homes for one year; between $25 and $60 billion in lower energy costs; preventing 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the annual emissions of 57 coal-fired plants; and annual savings of over 55,000 metric tons of mercury beginning in 2020.19

The ULP and other market transformation efforts also provide an important lesson for future programs, particularly for federal efficiency standards. In particular, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu recently indicated he would soon release the results of a project he undertook with a small group of physicists that could help change the common view that if the government mandates energy efficiency standards for an appliance, there may be a small bump-up in the purchase price even though it will be countered by energy bill savings later. Chu told a reporter his group’s review of historical data indicates there is no price bump, a conclusion also reached by Natural Resources Defense Council Energy Program co-director David Goldstein.20

Instead, they noted, the price drops as manufacturers get better at making a more efficient product under required government standards. The result, says Chu, is higher performance at lower cost, resulting in even greater savings.21 Chu’s review could lead to the federal government more aggressively pushing well-designed efficiency standards in order to motivate manufacturers to find ways to increase energy efficiency more quickly.

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