If it's been a few years since you shopped for a lightbulb, you might find yourself confused. Those controversial curly-cue ones that were cutting edge not that long ago? Gone. (Or harder to find.) Thanks to a 2007 law signed by President George W. Bush, shelves these days are largely stocked with LED bulbs that look more like the traditional pear-shaped incandescent version but use just one-fifth the energy.
A second wave of lightbulb changes was set to happen. But now the Trump administration wants to undo an Obama-era regulation designed to make a wide array of specialty lightbulbs more energy efficient.
At issue here are bulbs such as decorative globes used in bathrooms, reflectors in recessed lighting, candle-shaped lights and three-way lightbulbs. The Natural Resources Defense Council says that, collectively, these account for about 2.7 billion light sockets, nearly half the conventional sockets in use in the U.S.
A senseless rollback or an unlawful rule?
At the very end of the Obama administration, the Department of Energy decided these specialty bulbs should also be subject to efficiency requirements under the 2007 law. The lighting industry objected and sued to overturn the decision.
"DOE, in our view, exceeded its authority," says Clark Silcox, general counsel for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.
NEMA argued that Congress never intended for the law to apply to all these other lightbulbs. After President Trump took office the Energy Department agreed and proposed to reverse the agency's previous decision.
"I just don't understand the rationale behind trying to turn back the clock," says Jason Hartke, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. "There aren't many people out there clamoring for outdated lightbulbs that use four or five times as much energy."
Critics say if the reversal is finalized it will mean higher energy bills for consumers and more pollution.
"Now we're going to have to generate about 25 large coal-burning power plants' worth of extra electricity if this rollback goes through," says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC. He calls it a bad idea and says it's illegal.
NEMA disagrees and also objects to the term "rollback." Backsliding on energy efficiency requirements is not allowed under federal law.
"The Department of Energy cannot illegally roll back from a place that it could not legally stand upon in the first place," argues Silcox.
Eventually a court likely will decide who's correct. Environmental groups vow to sue if the Obama-era changes are reversed.
The lighting industry rejects claims that it just wants to continue selling existing styles of bulbs even if they use more energy. Silcox says companies are switching to more efficient lighting and are focused on, "What does their consumer want, and making sure that there is a high level of consumer satisfaction."
A hard lesson from those curly-cue bulbs
The industry learned a hard lesson after the first generation of those curly compact fluorescent lightbulbs was released.
"Consumers, basically, did not like them. They didn't buy them. They complained about them. We heard that loud and clear," says Jennifer Dolin, head of government affairs and sustainability at LEDVANCE, which manufactures Sylvania lightbulbs.
Dolin says the industry wants to make sure it gets the LED versions of all these other kinds of bulbs perfected before releasing them onto the market. She says more efficient bulbs are coming.
"The future of lighting is LED, there's no doubt about that and we see that in the marketplace," she says. "We see that consumers are shifting to LEDs at a much more rapid rate than we ever anticipated."
But given the mounting impacts of climate change, environmental groups argue this regulation is needed now to make that transition happen faster.
As the expected court battle plays out, the Environmental Defense Fund is hoping retailers will take the lead and choose, on their own, to stock shelves only with energy efficient specialty bulbs. So far, no retailers have publicly responded to the group's call, though in 2015 IKEA announced it will sell only LED bulbs.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Energy Department wants to undo an Obama-era rule designed to make lightbulbs more efficient. We're not talking about those pear-shaped bulbs. They've already changed over. This new proposal involves just about every other kind of lightbulb. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady to explain.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In the past decade, the push for lightbulbs that use less energy has made a lot of progress, and that can make the lightbulb aisle at a big-box store a little confusing.
JOHN PENNICK: I'm looking for a bulb to go inside of my refrigerator.
BRADY: John Pennick is holding a burned-out, 40-watt incandescent bulb in one hand and a package of LED bulbs in the other. He likes that the LEDs use one-fifth the energy. But on the package, it says they're dimmable.
PENNICK: I'm not going to be dimming inside the refrigerator (laughter) so...
BRADY: He opts for the old incandescent. Though, it turns out, the dimmable LED would have worked just fine. This learning curve is part of a big change under way in the lighting business. Noah Horowitz with the Natural Resources Defense Council says the country has been using incandescent bulbs for more than a century.
NOAH HOROWITZ: Today, we have LEDs, and they do everything the old incandescent could do, except waste energy.
BRADY: You see the pear-shaped LEDs everywhere now. At issue here is a wide range of other bulbs - decorative globes used in bathrooms, reflectors in recessed lighting, candle-shaped lights and three-way bulbs. At the very end of the Obama administration, the Department of Energy decided these also would have to become more efficient. The lighting industry sued. The Trump administration sided with the industry and now wants to reverse the regulation. Horowitz says that will translate to higher energy bills and more pollution.
HOROWITZ: Now we're going to have to generate about 25 large, coal-burning power plants' worth of extra electricity if this rollback goes through. This is really unnecessary and a really bad idea. And on top of that, it's illegal.
BRADY: That last point is a question a judge likely will decide. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association argues the Obama administration exceeded its authority by including all these specialty bulbs. General counsel Clark Silcox says it's wrong to call the Trump administration's proposed reversal a rollback.
CLARK SILCOX: The Department of Energy cannot illegally roll back from a place that it could not legally stand upon in the first place.
BRADY: That is important to the industry because rolling back energy efficiency requirements is not allowed under federal law. And Silcox rejects claims the industry just wants to continue selling existing styles of bulbs.
SILCOX: I don't think anybody's focused on we want to sell energy-hogging lightbulbs at all. What they are focused on is, what does their consumer want and making sure that there is a high level of consumer satisfaction.
BRADY: The industry learned a hard lesson after the first generation of those curly, compact fluorescent lightbulbs were released.
JENNIFER DOLIN: Consumers basically did not like them. They didn't buy them. They complained about them. We heard that loud and clear.
BRADY: Jennifer Dolin is with the company LEDVANCE, which manufacturers Sylvania lightbulbs. She says the industry wants to make sure it gets the LED versions of all these other kinds of bulbs perfected before releasing them onto the market. She says more efficient bulbs are coming, just not as fast as most advocates want.
DOLIN: The future of lighting is LED. There's no doubt about that. And we see that in the marketplace. We see that consumers are shifting to LEDs at a much more rapid rate than we ever anticipated.
BRADY: But given climate change, environmental groups argue this regulation is needed now. When the Trump administration finalizes its reversal, those groups plan to take the issue to court. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.