Energy Efficiency: Light Bulb Wars Roar Back Into House Of Representatives

Written by Tina Casey - July 14, 2013

Hold on to your seat belts, the light bulb wars have just blown up again. Light bulbs, as you may recall, have become a perennial excuse for certain federal legislators to whip up the conservative base, by railing again new federal energy efficiency standards. The new standards have already prompted the lighting industry to come up with new energy saving lighting technologies and create new green jobs here in the US, but still, the light bulb warriors continue their desperate battle against…er, progress?

The Light Bulb Wars

A bit of a recap is in order for those of you new to the subject.

Back in the Bush Administration, Congress enacted federal energy efficiency standards that apply to the manufacture of light bulbs (not to the purchase of light bulbs) in the US.

The idea was that old fashioned incandescent light bulbs are low-hanging fruit in the energy conservation game, because they waste about 90 percent of the energy they use in the form of heat and the basic technology has not changed since horse-and-buggy days.

All was well and good until President Obama won his first term in 2008 and the phase-in began. Light bulbs became a political football for the usual suspects (cue Michele Bachmann, R-MN), who positioned the new standards as another example of government intrusion into our homes, even though the new regulations say nothing about what consumers can or cannot screw into a socket.

Return Of The Light Bulb Wars

For the past couple of years the light bulb torch has been passed Representative Michael Burgess (R) of Texas, who just spearheaded a vote in the House adding language to the energy and water spending bill, to prevent the Department of Energy from funding any effort to implement the new standards.

This time around the anti-efficiency language was a little more sophisticated. As reported by Pete Kasperowicz of The Hill, Rep. Burgess reasoned that “the federal government should not use regulations to impose standards that force consumers to buy the pricier bulbs…the market should be allowed to sort it out.”

Burgess Aims At Light Bulbs, Shoots Down Jobs In Texas

Ironically, Burgess’s home state of Texas neatly illustrates how the new lighting standards have benefited the US lighting industry. We’ve been following a company called Firefly LED Lighting, based in Austin, that got its start just before the new standards began their phase-in, and it’s been growing ever since.

We first noted Firefly when it got a $3 million LED innovation award  from the Austin Technology Incubator, an initiative designed to create jobs and commercialize new technology developed at the University of Texas at Austin. Last summer, Firefly was named winner of the Technology Award in the small business division by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The switchover to LED technology is critical to high tech job creation in the US because the high-volume LED manufacturing process dovetails with higher domestic labor costs, compared to conventional bulbs that require more hand labor. Firefly’s lights are made in the US, btw.

Quick, Lock The Barn Door! The Horses Have Escaped!

Regardless of whether or not there is funding for enforcement, Burgess’s saber-rattling is likely to succeed in irritating the US lighting industry more than anything else.

Firefly is just one example of one US startup that is heavily invested in new lighting technology. A Pennsylvania-based company called ALLED is another (GM credits the company with shaving 80 percent off its energy costs in a recent factory retrofit), and then there’s Florida’s Lighting Science Group and North Carolina’s Cree, which got into the LED business about 20 years ago and just broke through the $10 barrier for its LED models.

The real tell, though, is that the big guns in the lighting industry have already set their sights on a more energy efficient future. Global lighting giant OSRAM introduced a low cost LED model last year, and Philips came out with an LED model that looks and acts like an incandescent bulb.

Major retailres have also acted in support of the new standards, one standout example being IKEA. The company already began eliminating incandescent lights from its shelves before the first stage of the phaseout even began.

Speaking of incandescent bulbs, the new standards leave manufacturers free to update incandescent technology to the required level of energy efficiency, which Philips has done with its new halogen-enhanced Ecovantage model.

And speaking of Burgess, if that name rings a bell you may be thinking of the notorious “masturbating fetus” argument he recently advanced in support of new federal abortion restrictions.

We bring that up just in case you’ve been wondering why there seems to be such a strong connection between women’s health issues and light bulbs, at least in some minds.

Just sayin’.

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