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Monday, 13 January 2014 09:44

Reports of Death of Incandescent Light Bulb are Premature

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Amidst celebrations welcoming the New Year, commentators were also announcing the death of the ubiquitous light bulb — the incandescent variety — that Congress, in a fit of environmental overreach, banned in stages with legislation passed in 2007. For instance, Shawn Regan, writing at Reason magazine, called it “Lights Out for America’s Favorite Light Bulb,” while CNN wrote an obituary for it, adding that it was “the dawn of a new day,” without Edison’s invention.

Some even went so far as to claim the “ban” as a classroom example of crony capitalism, with light bulb manufacturers, distressed over the tiny profit margins in their 60-, 75- and 100-watt bulbs, cozying up to environmentalists to pressure Congress into giving them special treatment. Said Regan, “The ban is crony capitalism in its most seductive form — when it’s disguised as green.”

The New York Times noted that the huge Dutch conglomerate Royal Phillips Electronics, maker of high-efficiency (and high-profit) light-emitting-diode (LED) lights, had formed a coalition with a number of environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to press Congress to raise energy efficiency requirements on light bulbs to the point where incandescents would essentially be outlawed. The head of Phillips’ “strategic sustainability initiatives,” Harry Verhaar, said at the time, "We felt that we needed to make a call and show that the best-known lighting technology, the incandescent light bulb, is at the end of its lifetime."

Edison's invention has become a virtual commodity, with miniscule profit margins, and efforts to educate citizens about the wonders of the new LED and CFL (compact fluorescent lights — the ones with the curly tops) had essentially failed to wean them off the cheaper ones. According to the New York Times of June 5, 2011,

Phillips told its environmental allies that it was well-positioned to capitalize on the transition to new technologies and wanted to get ahead of an efficiency movement that was gaining momentum abroad and in states like California.

All that was needed was a little legislative assistance to push things along. Nothing drastic, just enough federal incentive that would require all light bulbs to become between 25 and 30 percent more efficient by 2013. That would neatly remove the incandescent bulbs from the market, leaving consumers with fewer but more expensive options to be supplied, naturally, by the big three makers: Phillips, GE, and Sylvania.  

They had tried to persuade consumers the regular way, through marketing, advertising, and education. But those consumers just couldn't, or wouldn't, do the math. They didn't care that most of the electricity used to fire up a light bulb is dissipated as heat loss. They didn't care that they lasted only between 750 and 2,000 hours before they burned out. The Verge did the math: A 60-watt bulb costing around $2 will burn $7.23 of electricity in a year, and will last a little over a year, based on three hours a day of usage. A LED bulb, while costing $13, burns just $1.57 of electricity in a year, and it lasts more than five years. Think of the savings!

But consumers are deaf. Of the four billion sockets estimated in the United States, three-fourths of them are still filled with incandescent bulbs.

Part of the problem is the loopholes in the 2007 law. Sold as “an act to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security … [and] to increase the efficiency of products [such as light bulbs],” and promoted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a way of lowering energy costs to consumers, it was riddled with loopholes. The law didn’t apply to appliance light bulbs, “rough service” bulbs, colored Christmas tree lights, plant lights, 3-way lights, stage lighting, candelabra lights, outdoor post lights, nightlights, or any bulbs of less than 40 watts or more than 100.

That leaves an awful lot of room for the free market to develop low-cost, high-efficiency options to the LEDs and CFLs offered by Phillips, GE, and Sylvania. For instance, Advanced Lighting Technologies has introduced a light bulb that Edison would recognize and envy, called the 2X Bulb, which greatly exceeds the 2007 law’s efficiency requirements while costing only slightly more than the ones currently disappearing from store shelves.

In an ironic twist, the prices of LED bulbs are falling so quickly that even CFLs are in jeopardy and may disappear from the market in the next few years. Spokesmen for GE and for Cree LED both admitted privately that CFLs are losing market share and not gaining as expected, and that manufacturers might just stop making them altogether.

At present there are plenty of the old-fashioned, low-cost bulbs around in any wattage a consumer could want. They are available on Ebay for under a dollar, and at 1000Bulbs.com, where common wattages are available at $.80 apiece, or even less in quantity.

Despite efforts of cronies such as GE, Phillips, and Sylvania to override consumer preferences through joint ventures with green groups bringing pressure on Congress, the free market is always at least one step ahead of the consumers’ needs. While useful as a classroom example of crony capitalism, these efforts of conglomerates are overshadowed once again by entrepreneurs operating in the private market economy bringing better answers at lower prices to consumers who know what they want. 

 

A graduate of Cornell University and a former investment advisor, Bob is a regular contributor to The New American magazine and blogs frequently at www.LightFromTheRight.com, primarily on economics and politics. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3 comments

  • Comment Link Ted Makogon Tuesday, 14 January 2014 17:51 posted by Ted Makogon

    CFL bulb is environmental nightmare. Anybody who has disassembled one, can see it for himself. I use electronic parts in my hobbies, and each CFL bulbs has as many of them as a primitive radio or today's MP3 player. Just take a dead CFL bulb and carefully pry apart two parts of the plastic body. It has a printed circuit board inside with a transformer, at least one large powerful transistor, several electrolytic capacitors, several diodes, and a bunch of smaller electronic components. I am not talking about mercury in the tube, these components alone have enough heavy metals to break any environment protection laws.

    The fact that these acts passed the Congress speak truly about decay of our society. The only more ignorant than this was times when people threw criminals in water to figure out if they were innocent or not.

    We are back in the Dark Ages. Maybe worth, because today people think of themselves as civilized whereas they are more ignorant collectively than barbarians of year 1000 AD.

  • Comment Link Old Mullet Monday, 13 January 2014 22:49 posted by Old Mullet

    If the so called "green" move is toward lowering costs in fuel and energy, why does it take the replacement (good bulbs) being made in China, doing away with most of the U.S. jobs of making incandescent? Why are the lights along the freeways, parking lots, and other areas (the energy hogs) being left alone? And, as the previous commenter so very well covered, what is the gain by the new bulbs if you compare it all the way out? Me thinks there is a hidden agenda afoot, Sherlock.

  • Comment Link Tionico Monday, 13 January 2014 22:17 posted by Tionico

    The free market, if left truly free, will always come up with a better solution. I got suckered into the CF's when they first came out, lured by their "long life' and "low energy cost" mantras. Hah.... when 75 watt Edisons were under fifty cents, these monsters were five, six bucks. OK, fine, I'll get it back on my bill over the ten year life span of the newer style. They make noise, light colour is atrocious, take a long time to start, then to get bright.... and began to fail in well under two years... same lifespan of the standards. Then I learned they have mercury in them... no surprise, as most flourescents do. I learned that from working in the electric sign industry. And some of those CF's could not even be used in some of the fixtures I have here, they being older and wanting bulbs the size of the incandescents. All in, not what I want. I have looked at some LED replacements, but what is really needed is the intruduction of an entirely new low voltage no heat LED system, costing a fraction to install (could probably use 33 guage wire, a fraction of the weight of copper of the current 14 guage, tiny push in sockets that can be placed anywhere, replacing only the LED itself, which are cheap. And last some 20K hours. A couple of master voltage conversion panels to take mains current down to what the LED's want, and do away with the mains circuits entirely for lighting. The greatest share of the cost of the new LED direct replacement bulb seems to be the electronics, contained in every bulb (and wasted when come component of the system fails), then the base assembly and other gew gaws. Rethink the whole system, make it lean, efficient, etc. How much energy is wasted in the individual conversion circuits in every bulb? This is insane.. they are only thinking about their own pockets. OH, and make the new systems so they can easily be fed from a 12 VDS power source... easily integrating into backup, solar, and off-grid systems. Your "survival home" will only need one lighting system, than, to run on 12 VDC or 110VAC. Come on, you lighting companies, there's the future......

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