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Lights out: Future of Incandescent Bulb Dims as Energy-efficient Options Gain Power

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By Stephanie I. Cohen

RISMEDIA, August 28, 2007-If U.S. lawmakers have their way the lights may soon go out on Thomas Edison’s greatest invention — the incandescent light bulb. The 19th century inventor brought illumination to the world’s fingertips but according to Congress his invention isn’t efficient enough for an age anxious about energy supplies.

Edison figured out how to create light by feeding electricity to a slender piece of metal inside a bulb until it was hot enough to glow. But little of the energy consumed during this process is used to produce light.

“Only 10% of the power used by today’s incandescent bulbs is emitted as light, while the other 90% is released as heat,” Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said when she introduced her legislation to ban standard light bulbs.

To eliminate this waste, Harman has proposed legislation that would effectively eliminate incandescent light bulbs from store shelves nationwide as early by 2012. Her proposal was incorporated as part of an energy bill passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month.

A Senate energy bill passed in June does not contain a similar provision but does express support for raising the efficiency standard of light bulbs over the next 10 years. The two chambers will try to reach a compromise on energy legislation in the fall.

Though the incandescent light bulb has logged more than 125 years as the reigning light technology with little competition, lawmakers supporting the legislation see the 4 billion light-bulb sockets in American homes as an obvious way to curtail energy consumption and reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. Democratic lawmakers think compact florescent lights and other lighting technology under development can fulfill the nation’s lighting needs more efficiently.

“By simply replacing the light bulbs in their homes, our constituents will be saving money in addition to energy,” Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said during the House floor debate this month. If every U.S. home replaced one light bulb with a compact florescent light, the country would save more than $600 million in annual energy costs, according to the government, which has a Web site with information on compact florescent bulbs.

Not everyone is willing to shatter Edison’s legacy. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has criticized the provision, saying it turns the government into the “light bulb police business.”
Other legislators think compact florescent technology hasn’t come far enough and that it fails to provide the same quality of light as incandescent bulbs. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., has compact florescent bulbs in his home but says they are not the equivalent of incandescent bulbs.

“They are not very bright. They are not good for reading,” Peterson said on the House floor. “They buzz sometimes, they just buzz like a transformer.”

Still, a concerted marketing effort by lighting manufacturers such as Royal Philips Electronics and Wal-Mart, which hope to sell these alternative lights, has emboldened lawmakers to push for a total parting with the incandescent bulb. The legislation would mean a change in consumer buying habits for an overwhelming majority of U.S. homes.

“This will mean a complete transformation of the [lighting] market,” Jim Presswood, energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

Second time around

The House energy bill would mandate an increase of more than 30% in the lumens produced by standard 60 watt to 100 watt bulbs, between 2012 and 2014. Lumens are a measure of the total amount of light generated. A standard 100-watt bulb produces about 1,600 lumens.

“What we know as today’s incandescent light bulbs would not be able to meet this standard,” Jeff Harris, vice president of programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, said in an interview.

Current compact florescent lighting technology would be able to meet this requirement, according to Presswood. These compact florescent lights use less electricity to produce ultraviolet light that is transformed into visible light.

Compact florescent lights may seem like an unlikely savior to those who remember their debut in 1979. They were a consumer flop and made little headway in the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s amid complaints of bulb burnout, poor light quality, buzzing noise and high prices.

Since then they have seen a quirky redesign and now resemble the shape of a cork screw.

Certain enhanced halogen lights — known as halogen incandescent lights — which are also sold today would meet the standards set in 2012 and 2014, said Harris. These lights are 30% more efficient than today’s incandescent bulbs. “It is incandescent technology but an improved incandescent,” Harris said.

In 2020, the standard would step up dramatically and lights would need to emit at least 300% of the brightness emitted by the 100 watt incandescent bulbs available today. Incandescent bulbs will be unable to meet this standard but compact florescent light technology should be able to, experts say.

Anticipated advances in so-called LED lighting — light comprised of semiconductor light-emitting diodes — could bring another option to the market.

Long-term savings, higher cost up front

Supporters see the provision as a way to pare rising consumer energy costs. “Since indoor and outdoor lighting accounts for up to 15% of energy use in the average residence, inefficient light bulbs can consume large amounts of excess energy,” Inslee said during the House floor debate.

The savings that come from switching bulbs can add up, Harris said, though consumers will have to lay out a bit more cash up front when buying them. Compact florescent lights and halogen incandescent lights cost in the $2 to $3 dollar range but both last longer than incandescent bulbs, Harris said.

The 2012 to 2014 standards would bring a savings of about 30% to the lighting part of homeowners’ electricity bills, Harris said. The 2020 standard would lift the savings to around 75%.

General Electric, a manufacturer of florescent bulbs, has a calculator on its Web site that lets users determine the savings that comes with replacing bulbs. Replacing 10 of the standard 60 watt bulbs and five 100 watt bulbs with equivalent compact florescent lights would save a homeowner $120 a year or $656 over the life of the bulbs, according to the site.

The environment will also benefit if the standard light bulb heads into retirement, according to supporters of the legislation. Using less energy means less demand for electricity, which in the U.S. is predominantly generated by power plants that run off of large amounts of coal and natural gas.

One energy-efficient bulb can prevent the release of over 450 pounds of greenhouse gases, according to Harman. The 2020 standard in the House energy bill would slow the growth of U.S. emissions by roughly 104 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 1.4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2005.

Corporate market the key?

Not everyone thinks the government needs to intervene to make compact florescent lights take off and the corporate rather than the residential market may be the key to making a serious cut in energy consumption.

“New CFL bulbs are becoming more mainstream without the need for government intervention,” according to a July 31 analysts’ note from Thomas Weisel Partners LLC.

“We see a gradual increase in replacement rates with new low power usage bulbs over time. We see a big market for residential replacement but believe the corporate market is where to make the biggest dent,” the report continued.

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