The Numbers Don’t Lie: Energy Use and Power Plant Emissions Attributable to Lighting Have Declined and Will Continue to do so

The Numbers Don’t Lie: Energy Use and Power Plant Emissions Attributable to Lighting Have Declined and Will Continue to do so

Clark R. Silcox, General Counsel, NEMA

The Department of Energy’s recent proposal to correct a prior legal error during a lightbulb rulemaking has recently sparked a discussion about our Nation’s future progress toward reducing electricity use and a connection to power plant emissions.   A recent article republished online by Scientific American speculated that proposed energy efficiency rules for light bulbs could slow emissions reductions.   As if to highlight the potential threat from correcting DOE’s prior legal error, the article emphasizes

“Last year underlined the dangers of backsliding on energy efficiency. Fueled by a hot economy and extreme weather, American electricity demand increased by roughly 2% in 2018, the first increase since 2014. Increasing demand helped push power plant emissions up for the first time since 2013. They rose 1.1% on the year.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said it slightly different:  “A relatively warm summer and cold winter in most regions of the country in 2018 contributed to an increase of about 6% in total residential electricity consumption in 2018.”  But lighting had nothing to do with this.  In fact, it is just the opposite:  electricity demand and power plant emissions attributable to lighting have continually declined and declined further in 2018 when overall electricity demand blipped up.  As any individual can easily deduce, increased air conditioning use due to higher temperatures and increased space heating due to cooler winters are the culprits here. Electricity use from lighting — both residential and commercial — declined, according to EIA.   According to EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2019 (AEO 2019) residential electricity use from lighting was .33 quads (quadrillion BTUs) in 2017, .31 quads in 2018, and is projected to decline further .29 quads in 2019.  Commercial electricity use from lighting was .49 quads in 2017, .48 quads in 2018 and is expected to be the same in 2019.  Lighting is the one source of electricity demand that decreased in 2018, according to EIA data; many other sources were flat.

On the other hand, residential electricity use from “space cooling” (air conditioning) increased 20% from .61 quads in 2017 to .73 quads in 2018, just as you would anticipate from warmer temperatures.   Commercial electricity use from space cooling increased 12% from .50 quads in 2017 to .56 quads in 2018.  The EIA’s 2019 AEO ascribes much of the entire increase in electricity demand to air conditioning.  Space heating associated with a cooler winter also contributed to the residential increase in 2018 rising 31% from .54 quads in 2017 to .71 quads in 2018.  Peering into the future, EIA forecasts that electricity demand from lighting will continue to decline over the next few years notwithstanding slow incremental growth in electricity use over time associated with overall economic growth.

We have demonstrated previously that the Department of Energy’s light bulb proposal does not involve backsliding and that continuing progress toward energy savings from lighting, with or without government regulation, is inevitable.  As NEMA explained in comments to the Department of Energy last month, LED bulbs and compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are projected to represent between 80-84% of general service light bulbs in sockets by the end of 2019.  In 2015, these energy efficient bulbs occupied an estimated 63-67% of general service light bulb sockets.   The share of the standard incandescent bulb in these sockets has nearly halved since 2015 from an estimated 33-37% to 16-20%.   And over the next two years, most of the remaining CFLs in sockets are expected to be removed as they reach the end of their service life and replaced by LEDs.  Incandescent bulbs are being replaced by LEDs as well.  The trend is moving in the same direction with other types of specialty light bulbs such as reflector and decorative bulbs.  It is inescapable that much of the energy savings in the market transformation to LED lighting has already occurred and NEMA has promoted that transformation.

We can look back to EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016 (AEO 2016) and observe that EIA computed that residential lighting consumed an estimated .50 quads of energy in 2015 (compared to .31 quads just three years later in 2018).  In the 2016 Outlook, EIA projected that by 2020, residential lighting would consume an estimated .42 quads of energy.  The more recent EIA Outlook demonstrates that the Nation has already busted way past the 2016 projections for 2020 with residential lighting consuming 30% less electricity in 2018 than forecast for 2020 only three years ago.  A similar pattern has occurred in commercial lighting use.  EIA’s 2016 Outlook repeatedly emphasized the reduction in electricity consumption from lighting over the previous decade.

The data demonstrates that it is fallacious to believe or argue there has been or is a risk of increased power plant emissions from lighting when the opposite is occurring.  On a larger scale, transportation has now surpassed power generation as the largest source of carbon emissions.  Climate science and its consequences is an important discussion.  However, looking only at the forest of energy use and ignoring the individual trees that comprise that forest is neither productive nor helpful to important public discourse.

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