By Natalie Hildt
To hear the Tea Party tell it, new federal light bulb regulations due to come into effect next year will rob consumers of the right to buy the bulb of their choice and amount to a massive assault on individual economic liberty — practically the most villainous legislation since King George signed the Stamp Act.
But the critics are way off base. Contrary to their assertions, the light bulb rules signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007 don't actually ban anything. Consumers who want Edison's 132-year incandescent bulbs will still be able to get them — as long as they meet the law's requirement of 30 percent greater energy-efficiency.
But there will also be plenty of new alternatives at the hardware store. Indeed, far from stifling choice, the new bulb rules have spurred the creation of more options than ever existed before.
In fact, it was the marketplace before the regulations went into effect that was limiting consumer choice. That may seem contradictory to free-market ideologues. But the law — and the industry's response — illuminates a broader fact about government regulation, which can play a critical role in unlocking private-sector innovation.
Since the law's passage, the industry has made rapid progress on both compact fluorescent and solid-state (or LED) bulbs. LEDs use a fraction of the power of incandescents to deliver the same amount of light, and could shave as much as $15 billion off electric bills by 2030. The first 40-watt equivalent and 60-watt equivalent LEDs only reached the market in 2010. According to Lowe's, the brightest bulb options for retail lighting basically doubled in the twelve months between July 2010 and July 2011.
In fact, energy regulations have long been a key driver in advancing new technology. Just look at the example of refrigerators, which are now bigger, more efficient and even cheaper (in today's dollars) than they were before efficiency standards started taking effect in 1975. A pre-1990 model uses about twice as much electricity as a new Energy Star refrigerator. And, oh, yes — it was none other than that champion of government over-regulation, Ronald Reagan, who signed California's refrigerator standard into law when he was governor, and then signed the federal standard into law when he was president a decade later.
The opposition to the bulb law seems to stem from a dogmatic belief that regulations always limit consumers' choices — but the facts tell a different story.Consumers are gaining choices that didn't exist five years ago — and ultimately stand to save billions of dollars because of it.
Natalie Hildt is manager of public policy outreach at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships in Lexington.