Old lightbulbs to vanish from California shelves – judge removes last obstacle

Traditional lightbulbs are about to start disappearing from hardware store shelves in California, with an assist from a federal judge in Sacramento.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller has denied bulb manufacturers’ plea for a court order that would have blocked new energy-efficiency standards from taking effect New Year’s Day. Those standards will effectively make most traditional incandescent lightbulbs obsolete.

Although manufacturers can continue to pursue their lawsuit, the ruling means the energy standards will take effect Jan. 1, said spokeswoman Amber Pasricha Beck of the California Energy Commission.

The standards won’t apply to oven lights, Christmas lights, three-way bulbs and some other specialty products. But when it comes to general-purpose lighting, consumers will have to choose between compact fluorescent or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. It’s anticipated that most consumers will switch to LEDs.

The bulbs won’t completely vanish with the start of 2018; hardware stores and other retailers will be able to sell off any incandescent bulbs left over from 2017.

Federal law is behind the new regulations. Former President George W. Bush signed a law in 2007 that has phased in higher energy standards for lighting, with the latest rules set to take effect nationwide in January 2020.

California has chosen to implement the standards two years early. That touched off a legal dispute between the lightbulb manufacturers and the California Energy Commission.

Representing the industry, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association sued the state in August, arguing that allowing California to jump the gun would put manufacturers in a jam. Forcing manufacturers to comply with two sets of standards – one for California, one for everywhere else – would disrupt factories and leave Californians with fewer choices, the association argued.

“California consumers will be forced to choose from a much smaller selection of higher priced light bulbs,” lawyers for the manufacturers said in papers filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

More importantly, the manufacturers said the 2007 law forbade California from imposing the standards two years early.

California disagreed. It pointed to a provision in the law that gave it the right to move ahead of the rest of the country if the U.S. Department of Energy failed by January 2017 to produce detailed regulations fleshing out the basic standards outlined in the law. The department missed that deadline, allowing California to impose a “backstop” regulation.

That standard requires all general-purpose bulbs to generate at least 45 lumens (a measure of brightness) for every watt of energy consumed. Most incandescent bulbs can only put out around 10 to 15 lumens per watt.

The case drew national interest. Environmental groups and the Consumer Federation of America filed legal arguments on California’s behalf.

In her ruling this week, Mueller said California has the right to impose the standards two years early.

Although LED bulbs are three times more expensive than incandescent bulbs, environmentalists say they last longer and will reduce electric bills. Savings to consumers statewide will reach $1 billion a year once they’ve replaced all of their incandescent bulbs with LEDs, according to an estimate by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

Related stories from Sacramento Bee