July 26, 2011

Innovators, Meet Your Old Friend: Government Regulation

In the midst of the debt ceiling debacle, the House recently found the time to vote on (and fail to pass) a bill that would've repealed the so-called "light bulb law" that raised energy efficiency standards for lighting. The mandate was considered by authors of the repeal attempt — and apparently by 233 House representatives — as a "government intrusion."

Hear, hear! I'm tired of all these higher government standards. I want to retain the "freedom" to buy a refrigerator that uses as much energy as possible (and runs on coal you can shovel into the front), buy clothes and furniture as flammable as possible, purchase food without any safety standards and take my own darn risk of e.coli. Oh, and I want drive my car without that annoying life-saving seatbelt.

Kidding aside, this vote was absurd. If the bill hadn't been brought to the floor under some arcane two-thirds majority rule, it would've passed. The House has continued its attack by trying to defund enforcement of the bill. This is a really bad idea.

It may seem heretical in today's anti-government mindset, but I'll say it: many regulations and standards are very good for business. Here are a few reasons that the continued attack on the light bulb bill makes no sense, and in fact, why we should be passing a lot more laws like it:

1. Government standards, and particularly energy efficiency standards, are, well, standard.

Quick history: President Bush, who I think was a Republican, signed an energy bill in 2008 which raises efficiency standards for all new light bulbs starting in 2012. And the anti-freedom Congressman who put those standards into the bill: Rep. Fred Upton, also a Republican (he has now, as the Times put it, "reversed his position on the standards he authored").

In short, before recent hyper-political times, this country passed bipartisan safety and energy standards for decades on everything from boilers to cars and trucks to heating and cooling systems.

Critics claimed this particular law was the end of the incandescent bulb. But the bill does not pick technologies; it says how much energy the bulbs can use. It's the classic and most effective use of government mandates: set the standards and let the market decide how to meet them.

2. Efficiency standards drive innovation and save lots of money.

To be fair to critics, the standard did effectively rule out most incandescent bulbs at the time it passed. But then something totally expected happened: companies got creative. As the New York Times reported on July 5, "Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge." Apparently, some people didn't get the message that regular bulbs were dead. Instead, companies like Philips — while innovating around the new CFL and LED technologies — took the 100+ year-old bulb and made it 30% more efficient and last three times longer.

This pattern in common in industries affected by efficiency standards. Look no further than the dramatic innovation in refrigerators. Art Rosenfeld, the godfather of California's energy efficiency movement, likes to show the powerful chart shown here (from NRDC's David Goldstein). Due in large part to aggressive efficiency standards, the energy use and price of new refrigerators has plummeted — all while the size more than doubled. The innovation has saved consumers many billions of dollars.

(Note: Rosenfeld's work has been at the core of California's amazing record of holding per capita energy use flat for 40 years while the rest of us increased energy use 50%).

3. The companies most affected by these standards aren't complaining that much anymore. (Hint: higher product quality and efficiency makes companies more competitive)

One of the biggest battles over efficiency is often waged around automobile miles per gallon targets. The creativity of the auto industry over the last decade or two has been driven (sorry) by higher oil prices at times. But high standards on vehicle miles per gallon around the world have been even more effective (see page 18 of this UN report for chart comparing EU, Japan, China, and the trailing US on mpg standards).

2011-07-26-Slide1.jpg

The U.S. is in this game also — the Obama administration is proposing a new rule that would force automakers to raise their fleet average to 56.2 mpg by 2025. The Washington Post reports that this rule could save us 4.7 billion barrels of oil and $705 billion over the next 20 years. Even with these benefits, we'd normally see the auto companies fight hard, and there's always haggling. But this time it's a bit different. GM has broken from the pack and indicated that it would figure out a way to meet the standard. As GM's North America President, Mark Reuss put it recently:

It's our job to [figure out] what it takes to do it. The auto industry does not get easier. It always gets tougher. That's the challenge and that's what our jobs are. If even-stricter guidelines require billions more in investment, so be it. It's not an either/or thing. It's how we get there with cars and trucks that consumers really want to buy at a [price] that doesn't put unreasonable cost on them.

GM, after lagging for many years on product efficiency — a strategy that basically killed the company in 2008 when oil prices spiked — seems to get it now. As Reuss indicates, high standards push companies toward what consumers will demand. And in a world of expensive energy and tight resource supplies, they'll want cars that sip fuel.

In short, those who complain that higher expectations on energy efficiency will "kill jobs" or be destructive to industry aren't giving our business leaders much credit. Companies can and will innovate. It's in their best interest for many reasons, including the fact that the rest of the world continues to raise the bar. Multinational companies need to keep up to stay competitive.

And it's in our vital national interest to continue getting more efficient as quickly as possible. While energy efficiency standards may not be a complete solution, they have represented a rare bright spot in the nearly defunct national energy and climate policy realm. So let's stop the silly votes, move forward, save everyone some money, and help drive innovation.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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