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Keeping Consumers In The Dark

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that it will delay a requirement for manufacturers to provide more detailed information on light bulb packaging. The commission also carved out an exception for inefficient 75-watt incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out in 2013. The best thing one can say about the announcement is that it could have been a lot worse.

This decision is a loss for consumers, but only a partial one. The new labels will still arrive next January, six months later than scheduled, but better late than never.

The major improvement of the new labels, at right, will be to make the costs of powering bulbs clearer. While the old labels contained information about energy usage, they did so by using wattage. An FTC study ordered by Congress revealed that consumers were interpreting watts as a measure of a bulb’s brightness.

But watts don’t measure brightness; lumens do. Using watts as a proxy for brightness made sense when most bulbs had the same incandescent design and tungsten filaments, generally converting energy to light at the same inefficient rate. But newer technologies like halogen incandescents, compact fluorescents and light-emitting diodes can produce far more lumens per watt, making watts a misleading measure of brightness.

After taking comments from all interested parties, FTC adopted new labels that feature estimated annual operating costs, based on use estimates and an average national electricity rate.

The new labels were due to arrive this July. But in December 2010, industry lobbyists asked FTC for a series of delays and exemptions from the rule, including

  • Six-month delay for all new labels
  • Additional 12-month delay for labels for the wide variety of CFLs on the market
  • Exemptions for incandescent bulbs too inefficient to meet federal standards taking effect in 2013 and 2014. (100-watt incandescents, which won’t comply with standards taking effect in 2012, were already exempt)

Earthjustice, on behalf of Public Citizen and Sierra Club, filed two rounds of comments with the agency opposing each of those requests. FTC’s announcement last week split the baby, granting the six-month delay but not the extra 12 months for CFLs, and exempting some inefficient incandescent bulbs but not others.

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t as bad as it could be. But some in Congress are trying to make it worse. Bills currently kicking around would repeal the light bulb sections of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the same law that ordered that FTC study I mentioned earlier. While the EISA light bulb efficiency standards have inspired the most, um, consternation, the bills also threaten to repeal the sections of the EISA that provide funding to issue and study the effectiveness of the new labels. 

Fortunately, such bills may just be stalking horses. After all, even the same industry lobbyists that pushed the FTC to weaken the labeling rule oppose them.