Trillion dollar answer to Bachmann’s light bulb question

Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
March 8, 2012

US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann often asks why government should tell us which kind of light bulb to choose. Turns out it’s a question with a trillion dollar answer.

We will save $1.1 trillion through 2035 because of existing energy efficiency mandates for light bulbs and appliances, according to a report issued this week by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

The Efficiency Boom: Cashing In on the Savings from Appliance Standards” says the standards will cut our energy use 200 quads, the equivalent of the US using no energy for two years. The standards already have reduced our energy use 3.5 percent.

This means lighting and appliance standards have saved more energy than almost any other efficiency program, says the report.

Bringing the numbers close to home, the average household will save about $30,000 over 45 years, or enough to cover two years of typical mortgage payments, under existing and new standards. This assumes the household changes major appliances every 15 years.

It’s important to note that Bachmann’s assertion – that the government is choosing light bulbs – is an oversimplification. The standards do not mandate any particular kind of lights, but call for manufacturers to achieve a certain level of energy efficiency. True, an old technology may not make the cut. Oddly, though, no one seems worried about losing access to inefficient air conditioners, computers or other appliances. Anti-standards folks, like Bachmann, seem attached only to inefficient light bulbs. (This bewilders me.)

US appliance standards go back to 1974 when then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed a bill to bring greater efficiency to major appliances in that state. Other states followed, but the federal government didn’t get on board until 1987.  Again it was Reagan, this time as President, who signed the first bill. Additional standards became law under President George Bush and President George W. Bush.  Since then, the Department of Energy has further updated standards. About 55 products are covered; not only lighting, but also refrigerators, air conditioners, motors and other appliances.

“Standards have been a bipartisan energy policy success story stretching across four decades and five presidencies,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of ASAP, a coalition of consumer, environmental and efficiency groups.

The report shows that standards for lighting make a big difference, and will likely continue to do so if new standards are enacted.

“Our research found that a combination of updates for existing standards and first-time standards for products like computers, TV set-top boxes and street lights would add to the track record of big energy, economic and environmental benefits achieved by standards,” said Amanda Lowenberger, lead report author and ACEEE senior research analyst.

Three kinds of lighting make the list of top 10 products that would save the most energy from new standards: incandescent reflector lamps, outdoor light fixtures, and candelabra and intermediate base incandescent lamps.

The bottom line is that because of appliance and lighting standards, we are building fewer power plants. The report estimates that existing standards in 2035 will cut by 18 percent peak demand, the maximum amount of power we use at some point in a year, usually hot August days when air conditioners are running full tilt. Peak demand is important because we must build enough power plants to supply all of that energy, although we may reach peak only a few days a year. The rest of the time the excess power plants sit idle. It’s kind of like buying a fleet of extra cars for the few days each summer your relatives visit for a family reunion. Quite an extravagance for a cash-strapped society.

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The full report is available at ACEEE’s website

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work is available at

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. John Q Public says:

    There are certain facts that should be part of this article:

    -So far, the new halogen light bulbs that have replaced the old incandescent light bulbs are more expensive, last the same amount of time (1000 hours), and put out less light. So the bulbs are more energy efficient, but they cost more money to produce less light.

    -Based on my review at hardware stores, all of the new compact fluorescent lamps, halogen bulbs, and LED lamps are made in China or Mexico. Not one is manufactured in the United States. Does the ACEEE report discuss the total loss of US industries that may have resulted from (or partially due to ) these standards? I don’t think so.

    -In the Washington Post this morning, an article about the L prize winner shows that the LED lamps will have a higher life cycle cost than incandescent bulbs (and that assumed an overstated cost of $1 per incandescent bulb). So in some cases, consumers will save energy but pay more out of pocket, initially and over the life of the bulb.

    -Some of the “savings” in the report are probably based on energy cost escalation rates that are higher than what has happened (e.g., they assume electric costs go up 3-5% per year, when they have been flat or declining over the past few years). So some of the “projected” savings are overstated and will not be seen by consumers…

    • Christomart says:

      There’s nothing factual in John Q’s points.

      #1 is not factual. Halogen lamps last 3 times as long and put out the same amount of lumens as their incandescent counterparts at a 28% reduction in power consumption. As of this writing, lists a 72 watt halogen a-line lamp @ $1.50/ea in a 2-pack, while listing a 100W incandescent a-line lamp @ $1.25/ea in a 6-pack.

      John Q’s point #2 neglects to mention that virtually all general use lightbulbs are manufactured offshore, and have been for years.

      #3–See point # 1 for whether or not the price the WAPO article lists for the cost of a 100 watt light bulb is “overstated.” And John Q falsely states the life cycle costs of LED vs Incandescent. The article shows the cost to purchase and operate the L-prize winner to be $83 over a ten year period, while the cost to operate a 100 watt A-line lamp to be $228 over the same time period. That includes the cost (but not the labor) to replace 30 burnt out light bulbs. Here’s the link:

      #4 Average retail cost of electricity per KwH in 1997: $0.0843. Average retail cost of electricity per KwH in 1011: $0.118. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration. I assert that there’s no place in the US where the cost of electricity has gone down in the past 15 years, and if there is, then I’m from Missouri–you better show me.

      Bottom line: Don’t represent opinions as facts.

      Bottom line #2: Know what the hell you’re talking about before you post anything online.

  2. Eur Ing Int PE Larry Spielvogel, PE, CEng, FASHRAE, FCIBSE, FSLL says:

    Your article on lighting and appliance energy savings does not tell the whole story. Nor does ACEEE, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Energy.

    Any more “energy efficient” household product, such as lighting or appliances produces less heat. During winter months, most heating systems compensate by using more heating energy. For electrically heated spaces in winter, the total electric use is unchanged with more efficient products and lighting. Thus, consumers with electric heating will not see any utility bill savings or reduced consumption in winter with more efficient products and lighting. In England, this is readily acknowledged by the Government, and is called “The Heat Replacement Effect.”

    According to the 2009 RECS Table HC 1.1, 51% of all US households use electricity for space heating, either as the main or secondary source.

    For spaces heated with gas in winter, and with more efficient household products and lighting, the gas consumption increases. Thus, with electricity at 10¢ per kWh and gas at $1.50 per therm or CCF and 80% efficiency, with ten 25 watt CFLs replacing ten 100 watt incandescent lamps, there would be a savings of 7.5¢ per hour on electricity, but an increase of 4.8¢ worth of natural gas. Thus, in winter, the savings with more efficient products or lighting and with gas heat, the cost savings are cut by two thirds.

    Further, Energy Star CFLs are required to have a power factor of 0.5, which means that utility companies must generate and supply twice as many volt amps as watts, but they are not able to charge for them, until smart meters are installed. For electrically heated spaces in winter, replacing a 100-watt incandescent lamp with a 25 watt CFL means the utility company must generate 125% as much electricity and pollution as with the incandescent lamp.

    More efficient lighting and appliances do save energy in summer, but remember that there is more daylight, so less lighting is normally used.

    These are simple scientific and engineering facts. “Improved” energy efficiency never achieves the claimed savings in winter months, and can even increase electric generation and pollution.

    • Did you get your degree in a crackerjack box? Are you really a professional engineer? I have my doubts.

      KVA does not equal real power. Utilities generate real power. KVA is more related to peak power and line capacity, not amount of energy generated. A 25 watt CFL would never in a million years under any conditions and any power factor require more generation than a 100Watt bulb.

      Also, gas heating is 92% efficient, power delivery to a light bulb from a fossil fuel, 30% at best. Hardly a good trade off is it?

      Oh, most of the country is on an electrical grid. A CFL used in a jurisdiction with hydro generation means that a coal plant does not have to generated that electricity somewhere else.

      Yes, simple engineering facts … for a GOOD engineer.

  3. Walter Thompson says:

    Using your logic, everyone should be using smaller monitors because they use less energy. We should stop printing mags and news letter and only allow digital forms. It should be up to a Gov official which font you use in your digital newsletter.

    The list can go on forever, who then should be in charge of what we are “allowed” to do or not do.

    I have Never met someone working for the government who can do a better job of choosing what I should do when choosing light bulbs for MY own house. When they pay my electric bill, maybe, until then never.

    What has made America great is it’s freedom, take that away and we are just another spineless European socialist state.

    Think about this, what if I were to stop by your office or home and made a list of things I thought you should change because they did not meet my standards. I think you might be a little resentful.

    US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is right on this and a great deal more.

  4. Interesting article, but even more interesting replies. So the tenor of the replies is, from top to bottom: “there is no problem”, “we need heat from incandescent bulbs to heat the house”, and “don’t tell me what to do”. I’m obviously simplifying – to make a point.

    We seem to have a huge bias towards either doing things the same old way, or doing nothing, or railing against anything that hints at a climate change solution.

    But what happened to our good old logical minds – where “doing the right thing” is a normal reaction? I think it is logical and desirable to save energy. I think it is logical and desirable to explore different ways of making or converting energy – i.e. wind and solar and geothermal. Why? Am I a climate change activist? No, I am a pragmatist. If there is free energy from the wind or solar, why would we not take advantage of it? If the earth is a constant and reliable heat sink that stays at 58F, why not utilize that energy to cool in the summer and heat in the winter?

    When someone points out that a little energy saved in each home over an extended period of time adds up to a huge pile of money – why would we advocate a) doing things the same old way, b) react that ‘no one can ME what to do, or c) suppose to believe that electricity rates don’t go up?

    THAT seems illogical to me!


  5. Great reply’s…

    TD, your missing the point here. This isn’t just about light bulbs, it is about the federal government, which has never done a single thing effeciently. The government ruins everything it touches because it knows nothing of what is going on in your state, city, county, town, and especially your home. Also, it is not allowed by law to make these mandates.

    TD, your logic defies logic because you have rationalized irrational thought as locigal.

  6. Todd Wynn says:

    If we are going to save so much money then why not let consumers decide for themselves instead of using government to force it?

    The level of a country’s economic freedom (meaning not heavy handed government mandating efficiency) is a statistically significant and negative determinant of energy intensity. Countries with higher levels of economic freedom not only have more energy efficient economies, but over time these countries continue to decrease the amount of energy used per unit of production.

  7. Dana G P.E. says:

    Dear Graham,
    The Washington Post article assumed electricity at $0.01 per KWH. They are off. Electricity actually costs about 10X that amount which means the LED saves about $150. Note however, they use the suggested retail price of $50 for the LED and I can buy it at Home Depot for $10. Now the savings are $190. For those who are mathematically challenged and have difficulty with (your spelling) locigal arguments what you hear about government from the “liberal” press may make sense. Go to school for a few years and learn some facts.

  8. Great response Elisha! I shared your article on Facebook, I hope that was okay?

  9. Eric Allen says:

    I continue to marvel at how these discussions gravitate towards a debate over the “facts”, and/or torpedoing someone else’s line of reasoning. And I guess that after 35 years in the lighting business, there are some obvious observations that newcomers to the field overlook.

    Yes, I prefer to allow the market to process innovation and NOT regulation. If that seems a frustratingly slow process to some, well, so be it. That’s the price of freedom.

    The commercial and public works market has done quite well, thank you, since Edison’s invention in absorbing new technology without the help of regulation. How many city streets and highways are still illuminated with gaslights or incandescent lamps? The vast majority of this transition was market and choice driven, not by government mandate. When a reasonable alternative is presented to the market and to individuals, it will win by its own merits. To do otherwise always creates unanticipated consequences. Two examples:

    We moved from the pencil/pen to mechanical typewriters without the help of regulation, and we did the same in moving from the pencil to the sliderule to calculators. But who today uses a calculator even a mechanical typewriter? They’ve all given way to computers. None of those transitions were by government mandate, and computers certainly are most costly than pencils and pens.

    On the other hand, lok at what the lack of patience did to Russia and the countries of the old Soviet Union. If Engels and Marx were correct, there would have been no need for communism in the early 1900’s to accelerate and force the issue, but since it did, the ensuing government made a disaster of a generation of 15% of the world’s population. Just let good ideas grow to maturity on their own and we all win in a much larger fashion.

    One final thought. In Ms Wood’s comments above she compares the light bulb mandate to energy efficient appliances. The fact is, washers, dryers, a/c units and the like are not regular purchases for every home as is the light bulb, and in fact, many of those items are less expensive now than they used to be. Screw that in your socket and light it.

  10. The level of energy savings from updating major appliances can be surprisingly large. Technology has reduced electric consumption by refrigerators and air conditioning by as much as 25% over the last 20 years. Similar savings in natural gas or heating oil consumption can be achieved by replacing old space and water heating equipment.

    But by my own experience, much of the savings of new smaller appliances (microwave and other ovens, computers, tvs, light bulbs) is completely wiped out by the “instant on” or touch-pad control features of those same appliances – the so-called “vampire” or hidden electric consumption that accompanies almost everything “new” and “more efficient.”

    Moreover, by my own calculations, if every home in Massachusetts (where I live) used CFLs and they actually lasted 7 years before replacement, enough CFLs would be thrown away every year to contaminate 6 billion gallons of water (per EPA standards). How many people do you know who actaully treat CFLs as hazardous waste? None, other than yourself? Same for me. So which would you rather have: minimally less short-term air polution, or long-term contaminated ground water?

    There are so many “hidden” costs associated with the energy efficient appliances that nobody talks about, but which meet current government standards that I often question the overall wisdom of said standards.

    And by the way – there *are* incandescent light bulbs manufactured in the USA, just not by GE (which has moved thousands of jobs overseas in the last few years).

  11. As you know light plays an important role in human activities. For the reason given increased power consumption is influenced by lighting. Today there are lighting the ifluenteaza significant energy savings. Investing in such lighting is a step in promoting energy efficiency in practice.

  12. Anders Hoveland says:

    I am highly doubtful that “energy efficient” light bulbs save as much money as they claim. Those spiral CFLs often burn out much faster than they claim, especially in several specific situations.

    Actually, the “high efficiency” CFL and LED do not really save energy in cold climates. The old incandescent bulbs are actually 100% efficient – it is just that much of these energy comes out as infrared heat rather than light.

    I usually only turn on the lights in the night, when it is colder. I take around an electric heater throughout the house to warm the individual rooms I am in (this is actually less expensive and uses less energy than turning on my central gas heating that heats the entire house). Why on earth would I use a “high efficiency” bulb? I thought the old bulbs were supposed to be mini electric heaters – and this is exactly what I need! It makes absolutely no sense for me to switch to LED bulbs while I am using an electric heater.

    So in my case, and for many other people, “energy efficient” bulbs will actually waste more energy, cost more, and ultimately will be worse for the environment.

    Now I mentioned that the old light bulbs give off heat, so what about people that live in warm climates? Well again, your lights will usually be turned on at night when it is cooler. Even in desert climates where it is very hot in the day time, it can still get cold at night. Second, 70 Watts is really not that much energy. A typical little electric space heater is 1500-3000 Watts, for example. And with a typical air conditioner, it only takes 1 Watt of energy to remove 5 Watts of heat.

    Here is something the environmentalists never mention: CFL bulbs still waste 80% of their energy in the form of heat, not to mention UV and EMF radiation that probably cannot be good for your health.


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