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When the Lights Go Out in Congress

Energy efficient light bulbs have come to symbolize the promise of smarter, greener, cost-saving technologies. The image of the coiled CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) reminds us that we can save money while saving energy. And for good reason: The federal government's Energy Star program found that if every American home replaced just one light with a CFL that's earned the Energy Star rating, we could save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, or reduce our electric bills by $600 million annually while preventing 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to the annual emissions from about 800,000 cars.

An energy-efficient CFL can save more than $40 in electricity costs over its lifetime compared to the old incandescent bulbs. It uses about 75 percent less energy and lasts 10 times longer.

The free money from these kinds of commonsense energy efficiency gains is why Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a landmark bill that mandated a host of efficiency standards for cars, lighting, and appliances. Now Congress doesn't always use logic and foresight, but this bill was smartly based on a few very logical premises that employed some solid forward thinking.

Among them, two major premises:

First, if a widely available technology can save Americans heaps of money and loads of energy and reduce our country's reliance on foreign fuels, we ought to make sure we're using it. This means that Congress should continue to mandate national energy efficiency standards that keep up with techonology, as it has been doing since 1987. National efficiency standards save money for energy users, protect customers from out-of-date technologies that are overly expensive to operate, boost innovation, and protect the environment.

Second, we should also make sure products have good labeling so that the market can solve some of the problem on its own. This is based on the idea that if we allow Americans to see clearly just how much money they can save over time, many Americans will opt for the long-term dollar savings of the more energy efficient choice. It is important to point out here that national energy efficiency standards set the low bar for how efficient a product must be. Above that low bar is still a range of efficiency choices. With smart, clear labels that inform the customer of real cost savings, some energy-saving products will naturally rise to the top of the marketplace.

To the first premise, in this bill Congress came up with a plan to phase out a subset of inefficient incandescent light bulbs entirely. Some conservative pundits on FOX are wrongly calling this a ban on all incandescent bulbs—this story from Media Matters explains that there are 22 common incandescent bulbs that are excepted from the phase out, such as three-way bulbs and a host of specialty bulbs. The phase out has also sparked manufacturers to develop a high-efficiency incandescent bulb, which won’t be affected by the law and illustrates how standards can push innovation.

But despite the plan making good sense and saving us all money, some in the 112th Congress are already taking aim at this policy, devoting the time that they should be spending finding even more ways to save Americans money instead to political grandstanding, posturing, and politically motivated attempts to shoot down efficiency gains.

In his contest for the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, incoming chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), a key supporter of the 2007 energy bill, said he'd work to repeal it now that this efficiency law has become an obsession of a number of Tea Party and conservative groups that are waging a misguided attack on the phase out.

This attack is being led by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom are polluting the airwaves with misguided and false talk about these bulbs, centered around:

  • Their personal disdain for CFLs. “I hate fluorescent light bulbs, hate them with everything in me. Hate them, hate them, hate them,” said Glenn Beck on May 12, 2009.
  • Unreasonable arguments that these efficient light bulbs are no good because they don’t single-handedly and amazingly solve global warming. “Now, I’ve hated it because it’s a pain in the neck, it doesn’t solve global warming, they are ugly,” said Beck in the same episode. Limbaugh’s argument was a bit less extreme, albeit still misguided. Despite the fact that lighting is the fourth largest use of energy in American homes, Limbaugh tried peddling the bad idea that lighting efficiency doesn’t make a difference in our country’s overall energy demand.
  • Mistruths about the mercury content in the bulbs. Despite their hyperbolic and false claims that the mercury in the bulbs is killing people, here is the truth about the amount of mercury in CFLs, straight from this EPA fact sheet: "The amount is trace and getting smaller with newer technologies, it’s not enough to harm you, and a CFL saves 2-10 times more mercury from the environment than it contains by avoiding pollution from coal-fired power plants."

Now, to the second premise of the bill, Congress also drafted a section of the bill to require clear and understandable energy efficiency labeling for all light bulbs, both during the phase out and beyond, so that consumers are equipped with the information necessary to make smart financial choices. Last June, the agency charged with implementing these consumer information and labeling regulations, the Federal Trade Commission, finally followed through on that mandate from Congress by issuing a new set of requirements for light bulb labels. However, this change hasn't come without industry pressure to prevent consumers from getting the information Congress wanted them to have when it passed the Energy Independence and Security Act.

After the FTC announced the features required in the new labels, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) petitioned the FTC to delay its light bulb labeling rules and to excuse the most inefficient incandescent bulbs from the new labels altogether. This simply doesn't make sense.

In its proposed response to NEMA’s petition, which was published yesterday, the FTC did some bad, and it did some good. The bad first: It agreed to delay the effective date of the rule by six months (to Jan. 1, 2012) for all products, and it exempted entirely those highly inefficient incandescent bulbs (100-watt and 75-watt) that will be phased out by 2012 and 2013. On the bright side, it is requiring that all CFLs carry the energy info labels without further delay, and, despite excusing the first incandescents to be phased out from the labeling program, it is proposing to require labels for the incandescent bulbs that are staying on the shelves longer (until 2014). Before the FTC finalizes this labeling rule, it needs to correct the bad part.

Taken together, the phase out of the most inefficient lighting products and strong rules requiring helpful energy labeling on all light bulbs are two very important steps forward for America. They will save millions of Americans money, and they’ll help protect the environment. Those leaders in Congress who are waging a politicized war against the standards need to get out of the way of these savings for American consumers. Meanwhile, the FTC should not cave to industry pressure in these labeling rules. It must finalize strong rules that give consumers a clear idea of energy savings for all lighting products. In tandem, these two national policies can brighten the way toward a cleaner energy future for homes across the country.

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