Spurred by international events, climate change, and economic crises, American presidents have been promising a new direction on national energy policy for nearly four decades. But despite the campaign promises and good intentions, America remains as dependent on fossil fuels to power our cars, homes, and businesses as we were when Richard Nixon was president. Now, with the reins of power firmly in Democratic hands for the first time since the 1990s, there's widespread agreement in Washington that last November's election represented a watershed moment for U.S. energy policy. “I'm very much of the opinion that this is an irreversible political and economic trend that once it picks up momentum, which it will over the next four years, cannot be derailed,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has focused on energy and environmental policy throughout his more than 30-year congressional career and is the co-author of a major energy bill moving through the House, in an interview earlier this year.

Now the Obama administration and its congressional allies are crafting a complete overhaul of the way America produces and consumes energy. To ease global warming, Democrats are planning to place a cap on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. A complementary plan aims to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy by investing heavily in renewable energy production—and President Obama wants to double production in three years. The Markey legislation, co-sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), moves toward both goals. As currently written, the bill's carbon cap would reduce emissions to more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, while requiring that 15 percent of U.S. electricity be generated from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, by 2020.

Also underpinning nearly the entire Obama administration's energy agenda is an across-the-board emphasis on reducing demand and use. “Energy efficiency and conservation is where the greatest gains will be,” said Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist chosen by Obama as energy secretary, to reporters after a speech in Washington, D.C., in April.

This focus on efficiency holds huge implications for the lighting industry, says Kyle Pitsor, vice president for government relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), the trade association that represents major lighting manufacturers. Pitsor says NEMA's approximately 450 member companies are seeing a spike in interest for lighting technologies that improve energy efficiency in buildings. Energy usage in buildings is the cause for at least 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit coalition of business, environmental, government, and consumer interests. “There's been a little bit of a pent-up demand and roadblocks that have been removed with the new administration and an interest in looking at what's commercially available,” Pitsor says.

An early Obama priority is improving the efficiency of government buildings and private residences—an area that saw billions of dollars included in the massive $787 billion economic stimulus bill that was signed into law in February. The stimulus dollars represent an unprecedented investment in building retrofits, including $4.5 billion to help the General Services Administration retrofit federal buildings, $4 billion for public housing upgrades, and $5 billion in weatherization assistance for low-income residents to improve the efficiency of their homes. Pitsor says the stimulus funds represent a rare opportunity to upgrade the lighting systems in existing buildings. “A large percentage of the building stock has not been upgraded in decades,” he says.

Lighting could also see a boost from more than $3 billion in grant money included in the stimulus for states to encourage energy-efficiency projects. Markey's proposed legislation would also create a separate pot of money for the states that could be used for education and outreach, an area Pitsor believes is essential in this rapidly changing marketplace. “What we find is that we have wonderful energy-efficient products available but they're not getting deployed,” he says.

In addition, stimulus funds have tripled the operating budget for the Department of Energy's Commercial Building Initiative, a partnership between the government and the private sector that aims to make “net-zero” building technology commercially available by 2025. (A building that is “net-zero” would conserve and create as much energy as it takes from the electrical grid.) Drury Crawley, the DOE's team leader for the effort, says lighting will play a key role in meeting that goal. To that end, the target for lighting efficiency will be a 20 percent increase over the current target of 30 percent as outlined by ASHREA90.1-2004.

NEMA's Pitsor says early indications show that DOE research efforts into emerging lighting technologies, such as LEDs and OLEDs, are slated to receive major government funding increases in the coming fiscal year as well. “That technology will be quite revolutionary in terms of how we look at lighting going forward,” he says.

The Obama administration is working hand-in-hand with Congress to implement other items of its energy agenda as well. The House and Senate are at work on sweeping energy bills that will contain first-time federal renewable energy mandates and a cap-and-trade system for controlling greenhouse gases—both items which will carry potential for lighting. The creation of a cap-and-trade system—under which the federal government determines a cumulative annual limit for all sources of greenhouse gases and issues tradable credits for emissions to companies, thereby creating a financial incentive to reduce pollution—will have electric utilities seeking out new measures to reduce use and save money. In addition, to accommodate the vast quantities of renewable electricity anticipated to come online in the next decade, lawmakers are expected to invest substantially in a new smart electrical grid that will rely heavily on computerized technology, including sensors, to determine power needs.

“One thing utilities can do is to look to buildings as a source for reducing their energy needs, and therefore their credit needs,” says Ryan Colker, manager of government affairs for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHREA), which helps develop efficiency standards. NEMA's Pitsor predicts that the end result will be a growing consumer awareness of energy use in the coming years. “We know how much a gallon of gas costs, but I wonder how many homeowners know what their kilowatt-hour rate is,” he says.

Geof Koss writes about the intersection of politics and policy for CongressNow, a Washington, D.C., news service. He has worked for newspapers in Colorado and Oregon, and is a regular contributor to Planning magazine and the political newspaper Roll Call.