Energy efficiency cannot be a partisan issue for Washington


A photo on my wall at the Wilson Center displays a phenomenon all too rare in Washington today. It shows a large group of smiling Democratic and Republican colleagues, including the late Congressman John Dingell, the late Senator Pete Domenici, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the lone Democratic Cabinet member of the Bush administration. The year is 2007, and a beaming President Bush signed the bipartisan Energy Independence and Security Act, which required higher efficiency standards for light bulbs and the elimination of the incandescent bulb invented by Thomas Edison more than 120 years earlier.

Political lines have long been drawn on the issue of climate change, and the Trump administration has made a determined effort to roll back dozens of environmental rules that it views as unnecessary and burdensome to industry. But energy efficiency requirements for light bulbs, the latest casualty of deregulation, tell a different story.

Michigan Republican Fred Upton and I, a California Democrat, coauthored the light bulb legislation as an amendment to the Energy Independence and Security Act and witnessed the resulting bill pass Congress by large bipartisan majorities of 86 to 8 in the Senate and 314 to 100 in the House. We also offered other successful amendments, nearly all of which passed by voice vote, on every appropriations bill to mandate that the federal government can only purchase Energy Star light bulbs.

Our key amendment, which Congressman Upton declared at a Senate hearing in 2007 shows “what we can do together, House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry” alike, banned 100 watt incandescent bulbs by 2012 and phased out even more inefficient lighting by 2014. The bulbs invented by Edison were wasteful, with 90 percent of their energy given off as heat, and only 10 percent becoming light. “It sounds like Congress,” I noted at the Senate hearing. Our tagline for the amendment, “light not heat,” was born.

The amendment has made a real difference. Aside from surviving an attempted repeal in 2011, the economic benefits have been manifold. Phasing out incandescent bulbs has also spurred innovation on light emitting diode bulbs, making them significantly cheaper and more appealing to buy, saving consumers between $50 and $100 over the lifetime of each bulb thanks to their energy efficiency.

Before the move by the Trump administration to cut stricter efficiency requirements, which is likely to face legal challenge, our legislation would have required by 2020 that many kinds of light bulbs sold in the United States be 300 percent as efficient as the incandescents sold in 2007. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, completely eliminating inefficient bulbs in the United States would save enough electricity to power all the homes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But the energy efficiency requirements have done much more than allow everyday Americans to save money. The electricity saved by efficient bulbs protects the climate and also has immense national security benefits. The less energy a light bulb uses, the less energy a household demands, and the less energy the United States uses overall. Lucas Davis, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, found that energy consumption in the United States has dropped by 6 percent since 2010 after increasing by 4 percent each year between 1950 and 2010.

National security is relevant in that the less energy the United States demands, the less it needs to rely on oil, gas, and coal imports. As tensions over Iranian influence in the Strait of Hormuz show, countries that can control major oil “chokepoints” can threaten energy dependent countries by preventing the safe passage of oil tankers. As indicated by its name, the Energy Independence and Security Act was intended to address such issues and, along with the economic benefits, the focus on national security is what created the space for bipartisan consensus.

The light bulb regulations that Congressman Upton and I coauthored shine a light on the bipartisan common ground that can be created around common sense energy policy. The remarks by President Bush at the bill signing ceremony over a decade ago stand in sharp contrast to the aggressive and partisan path of deregulation the Trump administration is pursuing today. “The legislation I am about to sign,” Bush declared, “should say to the American people that we can find common ground on critical issues. There is more we can accomplish together.”

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Tags Congress Energy Fred Upton Government John Dingell President Regulation

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