U.S. Department of Energy Proposes to Impose “Backstop” Efficiency Standard on Most Lamps

Key Takeaways:

  • What Happened: DOE proposed to apply the 45 lumen per watt “backstop” efficiency standard to general service lamps, which would effectively prohibit the manufacture, distribution, and sale of most incandescent and halogen lamps in the United States.
  • Who’s Impacted: Manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers of general service lamps.
  • What Should They Consider Doing in Response: Submit comments on the proposed rule to DOE on or before January 27, 2022.

Building on steps taken earlier in 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is pushing ahead with new, more stringent efficiency requirements for most lightbulbs on the market.  In August 2021, DOE proposed reinstating the Obama Administration’s revised definitions of general service lamp (GSL), general service incandescent lamp (GSIL), and other supplemental definitions that imposed federal efficiency standards on a wide array of lamps. Now, DOE proposes to apply a more stringent 45 lumens per watt (lm/W) standard to all of these lamps, a change with major implications of lamp manufacturers, distributors, and retailers across the United States.


With the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), Congress directed DOE to initiate rulemaking procedures to determine whether efficiency standards for GSLs should be amended to be “more stringent” than those that currently apply to fluorescent lamps and incandescent reflector lamps and whether existing exemptions for “certain incandescent lamps should be maintained or discontinued.” 

The EISA sought to prod DOE into moving quickly to establish GSL/GSIL efficiency standards. First, Congress provided that if DOE “determines that the standards in effect for general service incandescent lamps should be amended, the Secretary shall publish a final rule not later than” January 1, 2017. Second, Congress included a “backstop” measure: if the Secretary of Energy “fails to complete a rulemaking” as directed, “the Secretary shall prohibit the sale of any general service lamp that does not meet a minimum efficacy standard of 45 lumens per watt,” effective January 1, 2020. The 45-lumen standard is generally understood to be unachievable for many incandescents, and would, therefore, hasten an ongoing transition to LED lamps. The backstop standard is also unusual to the extent that it would apply as a prohibition on sale, while most other appliance and equipment standards enforced by DOE apply to import and manufacture, rather than sale. As a result, the backstop not only impacts lamp manufacturers, but also the retailers who market such lamps.

The Backstop Moves Forward

In September 2019, the Trump Administration rescinded the Obama Administration’s revised lamp definitions and concluded that the backstop would not take effect the following January because DOE had not “determine[d]” that amended definitions were necessary. When the Biden Administration proposed to reinstate the Obama DOE definitions in August 2021, it separately sought public comment about whether or not to apply the backstop standard. Now, DOE proposes to apply the backstop standard to all federally regulated GSLs/GSILs because DOE has “failed to complete a rulemaking” under the EISA. 

The 45 lm/W standard will not go into effect immediately. Rather, DOE will accept public comment on proposed rule for 45 days, from Monday, December 13, 2021, through Thursday, January 27, 2022. Furthermore, the proposed rule calls for unspecified and “flexible” “enforcement discretion” and “staggered implementation” to allow manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to shift operations after the rule becomes final.

DOE also faces an end-of-year deadline for finalizing its proposed revised lamp definitions, though this deadline may be extended. Should it finalize that rule, the backstop standard would apply not only to pear-shaped A-type bulbs but also to five categories of specialty incandescent lamps (rough service lamps, shatter-resistant lamps, 3-way incandescent lamps, high lumen incandescent lamps, and vibration service lamps), incandescent reflector lamps, and a variety of decorative lamps (T-Shape, B, BA, CA, F, G16-1/2, G25, G30, S, M-14 of 40W or less, and candelabra base lamps). 

Approximately 30 percent of light bulbs sold across the United States in 2020 were incandescent or halogen incandescent lamps. Almost all such lamps would fail to meet the statutory 45 lm/W backstop standard. Because most LED lamps can meet the 45 lm/W standard, DOE’s actions are expected to accelerate a transition to LEDs.

DOE’s proposals would also sidestep an ongoing dispute between the Department and a number of states that had adopted the backstop standard when DOE declined to do so. DOE has previously asserted that such state standards were federally preempted, and reasserts that under EPCA, the federal standard preempts state standards “for the products that are the subject of this proposed rule.” However, DOE notes that states may petition DOE for exemption from such preemption as permitted under EPCA.

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