Biden Rollbacks of Trump Energy-Efficiency Cuts Generate Local Stories

March 3, 2021
A Seattle homeowner installs an energy-efficient light bulb in her kitchen. Photo: Marcela Gara/Resource Media; Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Biden Rollbacks of Trump Energy-Efficiency Cuts Generate Local Stories 

By Joseph A. Davis

Donald Trump once objected to new energy-efficient light bulbs because, he claimed, “I always look orange.” Like many of Trump’s other gag-lines about energy efficiency, it wasn’t true (unless it was caused by his makeup) — the most common high-efficiency light bulbs today, the LED variety, emit normal light, and do not make things look orange. 

In any case, the Trump administration rolled back (may require subscription) a number of energy-efficiency standards set in earlier administrations, and set some new ones lower than even what industry wanted. 

But now, the Biden Department of Energy is pushing forward with efficiency standards that mandate not only new kinds of light bulbs. The DOE is also working to revise energy-efficiency standards set under Trump that waste electricity and pump up greenhouse gas emissions.

Biden’s rollback of the rollback began with a generalized executive order signed Jan. 20. Then, in mid-February, DOE sent the Office of Management and Budget a list of 13 Trump lower-efficiency rules (subscription required) it was reconsidering. There will be a public comment period before the de-Trumpification rules go final.

Those 13 rules are just a subset of a larger number of federal energy-efficiency rules that cover dishwashers,  showerheads, home furnaces, air conditioners, clothes washers and a host of other appliances.


Why it matters

The cheapest and easiest way to start addressing the climate crisis is to use less energy to do the same things we always do. High-efficiency appliances use less energy — whether that energy comes from a coal plant or a solar panel. 

This is not a new idea. The energy saved has been called “nega-watts,” because it is subtracted from the load.

Much of the time, improved energy efficiency encounters little consumer and political resistance, nor does it cause negligible hardship or sacrifice. 

It may even save consumers money, since energy is costly. It can happen in the normal course of things. If a light bulb burns out, or your water heater leaks, you inevitably replace it with a new one. And the new one is likely more efficient.


The backstory

Technological progress is a long tale. People have been building better light bulbs for many decades. The first constant electric light was demonstrated in 1835. Edison, in 1879, just made a bulb that lasted longer. Compact fluorescent bulbs were better, but still had problems. Today’s LED bulbs are getting cheaper, last longer and put out friendly light.

Likewise, federal mandates for energy efficiency go back a long way, too. 

One of the first laws encouraging efficiency, the National Energy Conservation Policy Act, was passed back in 1978, a few years after the first “energy crisis,” following the Arab oil embargo of 1973. 

Back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter donned a cardigan and televised a fireside chat telling the nation he had turned down the thermostat at the White House. This may have turned out to be bad PR, as it associated lower energy use with deprivation and discomfort. 


With efficiency you get a warm 

house, but it costs less — and 

you don’t have to wear cardigans.


By contrast, with efficiency you get a warm house, but it costs less — and you don’t have to wear cardigans. All this was before the United States discovered the climate crisis. 

You’ll find some more history of federal energy-efficiency laws from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

In this era of climate change, fossil-fuel burning electric power plants are still a major source of greenhouse gases. Using less electricity means emitting less carbon dioxide.


Story ideas

  • Visit your local hardware store to talk to the clerks and managers about what kind of bulbs people want and what kind they buy.
  • Visit local appliance dealers to talk to the people who run them and what customers look for in washers, dryers and refrigerators. Do customers think of energy efficiency as a way to save money?
  • Find a talkative plumber to ask how customers think about water-saving showerheads or energy-saving water heaters. What matters most? Initial cost, water savings, energy savings, durability, convenience, etc.?
  • Visit your local planning department and ask about building and electrical codes. How do they affect energy efficiency? Are they up to date? Are they enforced? What more could be done?
  • Find out if your local utility (or government agencies behind it) offers discounts, tax breaks or rebates for energy-efficient furnaces and other appliances.


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 9. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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