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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Dark days of political light bulb debates are over

The Columbian
Published: August 10, 2023, 6:03am

When it comes to incandescent bulbs, Americans have seen the light. Or at least they have escaped the darkness of silly political wars over superfluous topics.

Last week, as the calendar turned to August, U.S. consumers were no longer able to purchase incandescent light bulbs — with a few exceptions. Under new energy efficiency rules, the technology patented by Thomas Edison in the late 1880s has been phased out, replaced in most cases by LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs.

LED lights use up to 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last more than 25 times as long. While most U.S. households have transitioned to the more-efficient bulbs, the topic occasionally has generated white-hot political debate.

In 2007, a law signed by President George W. Bush cleared the way for the U.S. Department of Energy to enact new standards for light bulbs. But by 2011, Republicans in Congress used the leverage afforded by a budget impasse to roll back those changes.

In 2017, the Trump administration fought against renewed efforts to require LED light bulbs. As the executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project said at the time: “The Trump administration is trying to protect technology that was first invented in the 1800s. It’s like trying to protect the horse and buggy from the automobile technology.”

Indeed, there are arguments to be made that light bulbs are a matter of personal choice and individual rights. And there is valid discussion to be held about the power of regulatory agencies to dictate options for American consumers.

“Another bright idea from the Biden Admin,” Sen. James Lankford, R- Okla., quipped sarcastically last week on Twitter.

But the fact that the change was accompanied by deafening silence from the public points out the silliness of using light bulb standards as a wedge issue. It also points out the absurdity of spending more than a decade nonsensically propping up a particular technology. We are reminded that Trump spent four years in office insisting that he would revive the coal industry and on occasion raged about regulations for faucets and toilets: “People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.”

Such performative outrage over environmental standards is now de rigueur for Republicans in Congress. House Republicans this year introduced legislation to prevent a nonexistent ban on gas stoves, and complaints in recent years have focused on imagined threats to hamburgers, air travel and gasoline-powered vehicles.

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act includes incentives for consumers to phase out fossil-fuel burning appliances. And several states, including Washington, have taken steps to phase out the sale of new gas-powered vehicles over the next decade. But suggesting that the government is going to seize possessions to enforce change is simple-minded fear-mongering.

For the most part, the public is ignoring such divisive rhetoric. That likely is due to the fact that most Americans already have switched to the more efficient bulbs. By 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only 15 percent of households still used incandescent bulbs for a majority of their indoor lighting.

Many changes are required to nudge Americans toward cleaner, more efficient energy use. As the dark days of the debate over light bulbs suggest, when those changes are sensible, they will be met with a shrug rather than manufactured outrage.