Lights out for the light bulb battle?
By: Andrew Restuccia
January 3, 2014 05:15 PM EST
So much for the light bulb wars.
The years-long political grudge match over Thomas Edison’s legacy ended with a whimper on New Year’s Day, when federal energy-efficiency rules barred the manufacture and import of traditional 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs. And this time, conservatives reacted with little more than a shrug.
No tea party protests took place outside Home Depots, demanding a return to the bulb that served as a staple in American homes for more than a century. Most Republican lawmakers ignored the issue altogether — a contrast to recent years in which the plight of the light bulb was an applause line in GOP stump speeches and the subject of repeated rescue attempts in the House.
Republicans may not be able to bring back the incandescents, but many still hope voters will know which party to blame.
“I think in general that Rs have decided that, with the record clear as to their opposition, they will let this Administration roll out these and other regulations directly affecting consumers, like Obama care, and see how consumers feel about them,” Linda Stuntz, a former deputy energy secretary from the George H.W. Bush administration, said in an email Friday. “If consumers are unhappy, the identity of those responsible will be clear.”
But others say voters have moved on — as has the light bulb industry. Prices have fallen for compact fluorescent, LED and halogen bulbs, the more efficient alternatives that the industry has churned out in growing numbers since then-President George W. Bush signed the 2007 law creating the new standards.
“There’s a couple politicians for whom this is a big deal and may remain a big deal, but I think in the grand scheme of things, for consumers it’s sort of a nonissue,” said Elizabeth Tate, director of government relations at the Alliance to Save Energy. “With so many other big things happening, it seems like a waste of time. It’s a small issue when you’ve got budget fights.”
Another factor: Most of the companies affected by the standards don’t oppose them.
“We’ve seen the writing on the wall for a good long time,” said Paul Molitor, an assistant vice president at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which represents dozens of light bulb manufacturers. “The law is very clearly written, and they’ve been anticipating it and their factories have been retooled to accommodate it.”
Besides, Molitor said, one federal light bulb standard is better than a patchwork of state rules.
All this is a far cry from the days when even a minor reference to the light bulb “ban” was catnip for conservative voters.
During the past Republican presidential primary, nearly every one of Michele Bachmann’s campaign speeches included a dig at President Barack Obama over the standards. “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want,” she said at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in 2011, repeating a line in her stump speech.
In the House, Republicans approved several measures to block enforcement or defund the rules. (A spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Friday that GOP lawmakers will keep trying.) Conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck regularly pound the same theme, and Beck said in August that he would fire employees that buy compact fluorescent bulbs.
Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has held up the light bulb rules as a prime example of Big Government run amok.
“Lightbulbs, refrigerators, toilets, you name it. You can’t go around your house without being told what to buy,” Paul said in 2011 while chastising an Energy Department higher-up. “You restrict my purchases. You don’t care about my choices. You don’t care about the consumer.”
In turn, Obama has openly mocked conservatives’ obsession with the bulb rules. “We’ve actually been criticized that it’s a socialist plot to restrict your freedom for us to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs. I never understood that,” the president said in August.
The 2007 energy law didn’t ban any type of light bulb. Instead, it requires that new bulbs use about 30 percent less energy than traditional incandescents.
Under those standards, manufacturing and imports of traditional 100-watt and 75-watt incandescent bulbs were phased out in 2012 and 2013, respectively. But 60- and 40-watt bulbs, which were phased out under the new standards as of Wednesday, make up the majority of incandescents in the United States.
Sales of the old bulbs are still allowed as long as supplies last, which has prompted some news reports about hoarding.
Opponents of the standards have raised a number of concerns, including the fact that efficient bulbs are more expensive — for example, one 40-watt incandescent runs around $1 or $2 and the equivalent compact fluorescent starts around $4 or $5. But prices vary, and some higher-end efficient bulbs can cost more than $100.
On the other hand, the new bulbs last much longer and waste much less of their energy as heat. For example, it costs about $4.80 per year for the average consumer to run a traditional incandescent light bulb. But it costs on average about $1 per year for an LED and $1.20 per year for a compact fluorescent, according to the Energy Department.
While the more efficient bulbs tend to be more pricey at the point of sale, in general they save consumers money in the long term.
“You’re going to be saving money in two ways,” Tate said. “First, you’re not going to be replacing bulbs like you were before. Second, they use less energy, so that’s less money you’re going to be spending on your electric bill.”
Still, some Republicans aren’t convinced the issue is gone for good.
“I’m not sure voters are aware of it. But they will be soon, and it will become emblematic (especially among the Right) of government gone crazy,” GOP energy strategist Mike McKenna said in an email. “I mean, these people can’t win wars, solve the drug problem, balance a budget or even get a website to work. But damn it, they still feel confident enough in their own judgment and wisdom to tell citizens what kind of light bulbs they can use. The speech pretty much writes itself.”