A new DOE proposal would cement a big leap in lighting efficiency but Congress is preventing even bigger savings

Posted on by
Anthony Fryer

New energy-saving standards for certain types of incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs proposed by the Department of Energy (DOE) last Friday mark another important step in improving lighting efficiency in the United States. DOE’s proposal further advances strong standards completed in 2009. Together, the 2009 standards and the proposed increases announced last week dramatically improve reflector lamp and fluorescent tube lamp efficiency by 70% and 23% respectively. Unfortunately, a congressional budget rider prevents DOE from saving even more.

Friday’s proposal covers incandescent reflector lamps, the cone-shaped light bulbs used in track lighting and recessed light fixtures, and fluorescent tube lamps, which are ubiquitous in office buildings. The sheer number of these light bulbs in use means that even modest efficiency improvements will yield large national energy savings. DOE estimates that in 2012 manufacturers shipped about 80 million reflector lamps covered by standards. And based on DOE data, almost 20% of all commercial-sector electricity use goes to power fluorescent tube lamps.

New standards build on previous improvements

DOE estimated that the 2009 standards, among the first completed during the Obama administration, will save more than any other standards ever issued by the Department. Those standards improved the minimum allowed efficiency by 62% for reflector lamps and 19% for fluorescent tubes. Today’s proposal further increases minimum-allowed efficiency for reflector lamps by another 8%, and for fluorescent lamps another 4%, compared to levels in effect before the 2009 standards.

According to DOE, for products sold over a 30-year period, the proposed increase would save consumers and businesses a combined 353 billion kilowatt-hours and $3-$8 billion dollars, and cut CO2 emissions by 170 million metric tons. (About 100 million metric tons of the CO2 emissions would accrue by 2030.) To put those numbers in perspective, the cumulative electricity savings would be enough to power about 29 million U.S. households for a year, and the CO2 savings would equal the annual emissions of over 35 million passenger cars. The vast majority of these savings come from the fluorescent tube lamps proposed rule. 

Technology already exists in the U.S. market that can meet DOE’s proposed levels. For reflector lamps, the proposed levels can be met with improved halogen infrared technology that utilizes better reflector coatings. (Although LED reflector lamps are not covered by today’s standards, they are the most energy efficient option and, as their prices drop, increasingly cost-competitive with the halogen lamps covered by the proposed standards.) For fluorescent tube lamps, the proposed levels can be met using improved 800 series T8 lamps in which the phosphor mix and/or coating is enhanced to increase efficiency.

Although the proposed increase combined with the 2009 standards dramatically improves lighting energy efficiency, some lamp types have been left out.  For example, DOE could save even more by including new standards for 2-foot linear fluorescent tube lamps, a growing category with about 5% market share in some regions. DOE should also address fluorescent tube lamps with a high color rendering index (CRI). These lamps have been excluded from previous standards due to their designation as specialty products but are now being marketed by some manufacturers for general service use. 

Congressional budget rider prevents even bigger savings

Unfortunately, the proposed standards do not include the least efficient reflector lamps. Very common 65 Watt “bulged reflector” (BR) lamps and similar products, which are currently exempt from any standard, emit less than nine lumens per watt. Reflector lamps meeting today’s proposed standards emit more than twice as much light per watt consumed. But, a congressional budget rider prevents DOE from improving efficiency for these “exempt” reflector light bulbs. ASAP estimates annual shipments to be about 120 million (compared to 80 million for lamps included in the current proposal). If BR and other exempt reflector lamps were required to meet the standards in the proposed rule, consumers and businesses would annually save about 4.5 billion kWh in electricity and more than $500 million in lower energy bills. Between now and 2030, nearly 50 million metric tons of CO2 emissions would be eliminated. As it stands, DOE’s hands are tied as long as the congressional budget rider remains in place.

DOE continues to make strides towards the president’s emissions goal

Last Friday’s proposed standards represent another very good step for improving lighting energy efficiency and toward meeting the president’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 through new energy efficiency standards (click for ASAP CO2 tracker). For the light bulbs covered by today’s proposal, DOE is due to issue a final rule for the new standards in November, which would then go into effect in 2017.