Changing the Lightbulb as We Know It

Changing the Lightbulb as We Know It

In late 2007, President Bush signed a federal energy bill that established energy efficiency standards for the everyday lightbulb.

These standards essentially retire the 130-year-old incandescent, which is so inefficient that 90 percent of the electricity it uses is wasted as heat.

As there are around 4 billion screw-based sockets in the US, this is a really big deal.

Once in full effect, the standards will:

  •  Cut our nation’s electric bill by $13 billion a year.
  •  Eliminate the need for 30 large (500 MW) power plants.
  •  Prevent more than 100 million tons of CO2 emissions, the main pollutant responsible for global warming.

To put this into perspective, these standards will save as much electricity each year as that used by all the homes in the state of Texas. 

Unfortunately, some have decided to launch a campaign to “save” the inefficient incandescent lightbulb. Last month, Representative Joe Barton of Texas introduced legislation that would return us to the past; its backers are spreading loads of misinformation along the way. The legislation represents a disturbing trend of bashing energy efficiency regulations across the board, regardless of their benefits. 

Interestingly enough, the lighting companies are not in favor of such a rollback. Flip-flopping policies are the last thing they want.

To its credit, the lighting industry’s trade association issued a press release that sums up its ongoing commitment to meet and exceed the new lighting efficiency standards. These companies have made major changes to their supply chains and invested billions of dollars in research and development and new production facilities. Preserving the most inefficient lightbulb is no longer in their financial interests.

Barton’s bill also ignores exciting new energy saving lighting products that are beginning to hit market. These replacement bulbs provide just as much light as today’s incandescents and last much longer, which means fewer trips up the ladder and significant cost savings for the user.

Not surprisingly, Edison’s 125-year-old bulb is a really bad deal in today’s economy. While today’s incandescent bulbs cost 25 cents to 50 cents per bulb when bought in a 4 pack, they are a really bad deal both for your pocket and the environment. That’s because energy saving alternatives such as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) use 4 times less energy to create the same amount of light. Over a five-year period, a 100W incandescent bulb will cost $40 more than the comparable 25W CFL. 

Unfortunately, many consumers are unable to get past the slightly higher first cost of the CFL, $2 (in a multi-pack) to $5 (when bought one at a time), and unknowingly are being hit with higher electric bills.

What Does the 2007 Law Really Do?

Contrary to many alarmist headlines, the law signed by President Bush in 2007 does NOT ban incandescents (or any other technology for that matter). The law simply requires new bulbs, beginning in 2012, to use 25 percent to 30 percent less power than today’s conventional incandescent bulb. The law is technology neutral and allows any type of bulb to be sold as long as it is a reasonably efficient one.  Consumers will have lots of choices including energy saving halogens, CFLs, LEDs, and even new and improved incandescent lamps. 

What About Jobs?

The experience so far is that Osram Sylvania chose to retool its incandescent factory, one of the few remaining in the United States. In retooling its plant in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, Osram Sylvania preserved 265 jobs and protected the jobs in the feeder plants throughout the country that make the glass, bases and halogen capsules that go into the new energy saving bulbs.

Another manufacturer, GE, has a mixed story. GE invested $60 million to create a global center of excellence for linear fluorescent lamp manufacturing in Bucyrus, Ohio, an action that will double that plant’s jobs. But GE has also recently announced the closing of an incandescent plant in Virginia, a closing that will sadly result in the loss of 200 jobs.

Other job-related news includes:

TCP Inc., one of the world's biggest manufacturers of high-quality compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), is moving some of its production from China back to the U.S. When was the last time that happened?

Lighting based on light-emitting diodes or LEDs has created many new jobs in the United States; many more are on the way.

  •  For example, Cree, a North Carolina-based lighting company, recently announced plans to invest more than $500 million in two new factories that will provide more than 800 new jobs in the Durham, NC area.
  •  Also check out this story about Lighting Sciences Group Corporation, which is producing new LED lightbulbs that will soon appear on the shelf at Home Depot stores.  The company recently won almost $19 million in federal stimulus bonds to expand operations to develop and manufacture energy efficient LED lighting in Florida's “Space Coast.” The development has the potential to create 832 new jobs over the next two years. While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make a LED lightbulb, these factories are indeed quite sophisticated and provide the type of high paying green jobs that are in everybody’s best interest. In fact, many of the new hires could indeed be former NASA employees.

Overall the job creation story is overwhelmingly positive. The loss of one plant and its jobs, however traumatic for the impacted community, cannot be allowed to overwhelm developments that promise hundreds and hundreds of new jobs here in the US.

Stay tuned for more news about changes in lighting technology. With the new standards set to begin soon and with massive innovation in the worldwide market, we’re all going to need guidance and advice as we enter the clean energy future.

P.S. – One last point I want to reemphasize: We will all still be able to buy a great bulb for every socket. Contrary to what some luddites say, consumers will be able to choose from a wide range of bulbs, using a variety of technologies, coming in many different shapes, brightness levels, and color temperatures (warm yellowish light to cooler bluish light). No one is requiring you to buy a CFL -- not now, not ever. The regulation is simply making manufacturers build you a better bulb.

In the interest of full disclosure, though, I’m a big fan of the new CFLs as they are now small enough that you can even pull one out of your pocket, as I demonstrated on national TV – with Hoda and Kathie Lee one morning. Also check out the October issue of Consumer Reports for their recent reviews of CFLs, which were quite favorable.

Noah Horowitz is a senior scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program and works on a wide range of energy efficiency issues. This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

Image CC licensed by Matt From London. http://www.flickr.com/photos/57868312@N00/4528365831