Saying goodbye to Edison’s hot little light bulb?

Michael Giberson

Andrew Rice has a great little story in the New York Times Magazine on the upcoming phaseout of the incandescent light bulb. No, the incandescent bulb has not been “banned,” not exactly. It is just that, a few years ago, Congress agreed to raise energy efficiency standards for light bulbs effective January 1, 2012, to a level high enough that incandescent bulbs would not qualify.

The story wraps together a little history, technology, politics, aesthetics, and economics, and adds just a few hints of political philosophy. Nice. A couple of good parts:

Lumileds, a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Royal Philips Electronics, specializes in the manufacture of light-emitting diodes (L.E.D.’s), tiny semiconductor chips similar to the ones you’d find within your computer, except that they turn electricity into photons instead of information….

Philips created its L.E.D. bulb to compete for the L Prize, a government-sponsored award meant to encourage the development of a replacement for the 60-watt incandescent before the new standards begin to go into effect in January. Traditional incandescents are extremely inefficient, giving off 90 percent of their energy as heat, not light, and over the years, the government and the lighting industry tried to move consumers on to products like halogens and compact fluorescents. But no amount of subsidy or “green” branding has managed to woo consumers away from Edison’s bulb. “Not only is it in alignment with the type of light that consumers like,” says David DiLaura, author of “A History of Light and Lighting.” “It’s commoditized and it’s cheap.”

So some years ago, Philips formed a coalition with environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council to push for higher standards. “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,” says Harry Verhaar, the company’s head of strategic sustainability initiatives. Philips told its environmental allies 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. Other manufacturers were more wary, but they also understood the downside to selling a ubiquitous commodity: the profit margin on a bulb that sells for a quarter is negligible. After much negotiation, the industry and environmental groups agreed to endorse tightening efficiency by 25 to 30 percent.

And:

The notion of light as a thoughtless commodity would have seemed fanciful to our distant ancestors. Before electricity, light was expensive, a product of exhaustible sources like whale oil. It was Edison who finally took it to the masses in limitless quantities. On Dec. 31, 1879, the inventor invited a crowd of thousands to his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., to witness a demonstration of his fantastic innovation, described in a patent as an “electric lamp for giving light by incandescence.”

Technically speaking, whale oil is a renewable resource, right?

Much of the crucial basic research behind the [Philips L Prize] bulb was done by a specialized group of about 40 Lumileds scientists. They continually work to improve the L.E.D. performance by experimenting with the closely guarded “recipe” used to cook up the diodes by combining molecules of indium, gallium and nitrogen. “The material system is not very well understood,” says Ted Mihopoulos, who heads the department. Minuscule changes in temperature inside a reactor can yield significant variations in color and brightness. People sometimes say that L.E.D.’s are like diamonds; no two are exactly alike. When the time came to build an L Prize prototype, Mihopoulos said he culled the 24 brightest diodes from his lab’s private stash.

Doesn’t exactly seem like a technology ready to jump from the lab to the manufacturing line, but there are still over six months to go before the phaseout (unless Congress intervenes on behalf of consumers wanting to stick with incandescents) so I guess consumers should keep their fingers crossed.

In March, [Sen. Jeff] Bingaman convened a Senate committee hearing on the new standards. Two Republicans, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim Risch of Idaho, used the occasion to denounce free-market infringement. Paul pressed Kathleen Hogan, a D.O.E. official, to say whether she was pro-choice before going off into a long disquisition on liberty. “I find it really appalling and hypocritical . . . that you favor a woman’s right to an abortion but you don’t favor a woman or a man’s right to choose what kind of light bulb,” Paul said. “I really find it troubling, this busybody nature.”

Okay, I’ll admit that – in the summer at least, when I’m paying to cool my house – I’m troubled by all the heat given off by incandescent bulbs. See Energy Circle for an illustration. But count me among the consumers who have tried compact fluorescents (actually have some in my family room right now) and have been usually disappointed by shorter-than-promised lifespans for poorer quality light and at a much higher cost.

L.E.D.s seem like a great solution, maybe someday, but they still need work to outperform the cheap, hot little bulb devised by Thomas Edison so many years ago.

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5 thoughts on “Saying goodbye to Edison’s hot little light bulb?

  1. LED bulbs also still need some work to approach the cost of even those expensive, cute little curlicues which provide poor lighting quality and require a HazMat team to remove if broken.

  2. This is another example of how businesses and special-interest groups push for laws and regulations simply because they hope to reap financial benefits FOR THEMSELVES.

    Like carbon exchanges and a host of other energy-based lobbying.

  3. Todd, the article provides a really excellent example of what is called a “bootleggers and baptists coalition.” The restrictive regulations are supported by moralists who want to “do good” but the support is actively lobbied for by businesses that hope to profit from the limits created. Effective politically because the do-gooders provide moral high ground cover allowing politicians to cave to the businesses’ nakedly self-interested lobbying.

    Similar arrangements used to work in favor of ethanol policy, but environmentalists have mostly wised up on the failures so the coalition is falling apart. Usually that means the policy should lose support, and that seems to be happening for ethanol.

  4. In April 2008, I put together a review of CFL’s and some of their difficulties that are not talked about or printed on the box.

    The CFL Advertising Account

    The good and bad about compact fluorescent lights. Why the ads are both true and false. How to save and waste money on CFL’s.

    My research indicated that the average CFL at that time will turn on 2000 times before its electronics fail. The recommendation to leave them on for 15 minutes is a crazy interpretation of that fact. Leaving them on doesn’t heal them. But, hey, at least if you leave them on for 15 minutes each time, you will get 500 hours use out of them before they fail. If you leave them on for 5+ hours at a time, then you will probably get the full 8000 or 10000 hour rated life.

    Interesting to me, people who report on current CFL’s omit definite information about how many on-off cycles current bulbs will complete. Consumer Reports gives a Good-Bad rating for this, but not an absolute figure. This still seems to be a problem.

    I also present a cost analysis of expected savings, taking into account CFL and standard bulbs release of heat energy, under air conditioning, winter heating, and no heating or cooling needed.

    The rules for cleaning up a broken bulb are hilarious. I think the small amount of murcury is not harmful with a bit of care. But, our environmental agencies can’t admit that, because they have taken an extreme position on coal emissions. So, they give instructions suitable for hazmat toxic cleanup.

  5. Also, it was embarrassing not having an L-prize entry. 30 days to the deadline, Philips had the -only- entry. (Though one did have to sort of back up one’s claim of being able to supply a growing market as well as other Design/prorotype work, so that’s why not everyone with an aesthetic sense who heard of photoemission signed up.)

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