It can break your heart to see a good bulb gone bad. After a brilliant career spanning more than a century, in which he came to be a fixture in households throughout the electrified world and a universal icon for good ideas, our affable little friend, the general-purpose tungsten-incandescent lamp, now finds himself unwelcome in polite society — spurned, scorned, banished from two countries and at risk of banishment from several states in his homeland, if not from the nation as a whole. How can this happen? It seems that time and technology at last have passed him by.

Amid growing enthusiasm for energy efficiency and environmental causes generally, governments throughout the world are taking a closer look at technologies in widespread use and finding ways to enact laws to force adoption of more efficient products where the markets have not done so on their own. From Australia to Canada, from the European Union to the United States, public opinion, to the extent it's expressed through legislation, appears to have reached a tipping point.

It's not hard to see why the legislators' attention fell on our bulbous friend. Many in the electrical industry may wonder why it's taken so long for the rest of the world to realize that the tungsten incandescent makes a better space heater than a light source. In contrast, the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), the leading candidate to replace general-purpose incandescents in the short term, runs cool, uses a fourth the energy and lasts eight- to 10-times longer.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that replacing the nation's billions of incandescents with equivalent compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) will reduce the annual electric costs in the United States by $18 billion, in the process eliminating the need for 80 coal-fired power plants and reducing fossil fuel emissions by approximately 159 million tons per year. Switching some of that lighting to solid-state lamps such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) could cut energy consumption even further, once that technology becomes more widely available for general-purpose lighting.

The world's leading lamp manufacturers are unlikely to shed many tears over the incandescent lamp's demise. For many years, General Electric, Osram/Sylvania and Philips have been investing heavily in development of more efficient lighting technologies and in marketing to drive demand toward those products. Now that governments are stepping in to push the market, the manufacturers are working through industry associations and lobbyists to help shape the laws in such a way that they encourage energy efficiency without stifling innovation.

What all this means for the electrical supply chain in general and electrical distributors specifically is yet to be seen. General-use incandescents are not exactly a leading profit center for most distributors. The commercial, industrial and institutional markets that are most distributors' primary focus moved to fluorescent lighting long ago, often due to the work distributors have done to promote the efficiency and lower total cost of fluorescent products. Distributors with a lighting specialty are, in fact, busy swapping out old fluorescent technology for the latest, most efficient lamps and fixtures and still showing customers nice returns on the investment. Residential new construction markets may see some changes in the kinds of fixtures installed, but due to the size of the existing installed base, any new lighting technologies will have to be compatible with Edison screw-based sockets for a long time to come.

The (multi-)million-dollar questions that remain are: What kind of lighting will U.S. consumers ultimately favor, if they can't get low-cost incandescent bulbs? And what will happen to availability of CFLs and other replacement lamps, if the laws produce a sudden surge in demand?

The answer to the first question will initially be influenced by the details of the laws that are eventally passed regarding energy-efficient lighting. This is a work in progress.

The Shape of Legislation

At press time, the U.S. Senate had passed an energy bill, H.R. 6, “The Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007.” That bill, in addition to a host of provisions to encourage research and production in renewable fuels, raise federal automotive mileage standards, refine some of the energy-efficiency specifics of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) and make price gouging on fuels a federal crime, also includes lighting efficiency standards that in effect eliminate 100W and 75W general-purpose incandescent lamps. An equivalent bill (one of several, actually) in the House of Representatives has emerged from the House Energy & Commerce Committee and is awaiting a debate before the full house.

Both bills include language declaring that the federal law will supercede state-level legislation, throwing bills under consideration in California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and several other states into doubt. Federal pre-emption is an important issue for manufacturers, who want to avoid the patchwork effect of having their products legal in some states and outlawed in others.

Various entities in the electrical industry, including the manufacturers, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., and the Lighting Efficiency Coalition, have been negotiating with environmental groups and educating legislators, trying to shape the direction of the bills now making their way through Congress. One of the highest priorities is to make sure the bills set achievable efficiency performance standards for lamps while remaining “technology-neutral.”

Banning incandescent lamps or any particular technology outright would stifle innovation, argue the manufacturers. Establishing minimum performance standards would move the market toward the more efficient products while allowing manufacturers to continue trying to make existing technologies more efficient as well.

GE Consumer & Industrial, which includes the company's Nela Park, Ohio-based lighting business, has a significant stake in this language. Shortly after the California bill was introduced, GE announced it is developing an incandescent technology that promises to rival compact fluorescent lamps in energy efficiency while preserving the warmth and point-source sparkle of traditional incandescent lamps.

Despite the efforts of lamp companies and their allies, the House bill, as ammended in committee, specifically bans production, importing and sale of 100W and 75W general-purpose incandescents. Whether this language survives the long road ahead through House debate and reconciliation with the Senate legislation — and whether the bill survives a possible Presidential veto (said to be likely if it raises vehicle mileage standards too aggressively or includes the price-gouging language) — remains to be seen. “Right now, we're keeping our powder dry to fight that fight in conference,” says one source involved in the lobbying, but who asked not to be named because he's not his organization's lead voice on pending legislation.

The Color of Light

Another factor that will help determine what kind of lamp becomes the predominant light source of the future is the success with which manufacturers are able to reproduce the unique qualities of incandescent lighting using other technologies.

The various legislative efforts underway sparked a national conversation about lighting that highlights what consumers believe they will lose when their last incandescent bulb goes dark. Some of the opinions expressed revealed people to be misinformed.

When a bill specifically banning incandescents was introduced in California earlier this year (under the title, “How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb Act”), the prospect of Hollywood's glittering starlets suddenly being seen only in the flat, greenish hues of old fluorescent tubes raised some alarm. “Nobody looks good under fluorescent light,” said one distressed opponent of the California ban, in an interview on a national radio program. He summed up the fears of many.

In reality, the color issue was solved long ago, says Jim Benya of Benya Lighting Design, Portland, Ore. “I haven't used incandescents in years,” he says. Benya is a leading advocate of energy-efficient lighting, and has designed the lighting for a number of buildings certified under gold and silver levels of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

“Fluorescent lighting has come so far in recent years,” he continues. “I'll reveal a lighting design secret here: Take a long-tube, 3,000K tri-phosphor fluorescent, put a filter called ‘warm straw’ on it, and you won't be able to tell the difference between that and an incandescent, from the color. It's not that hard.”

Most of his designs rely on a combination of fluorescent and low-voltage halogen light sources, Benya says.

Aside from color, many commentors focused on shortcomings typical of the early CFLs that entered the market a decade or more ago. Manufacturers realize they've got to overcome these lingering impressions.

“Compact fluorescents have come a long way,” says Joe Howley, manager of industry relations and environmental marketing for GE Consumer & Industrial. “Ten years ago, it was a $15 product that was bigger and heavier; it had an electro-magnetic ballast, so it would blink before it came on; it wouldn't fit a lot of the lamps, and it would have to warm up awhile before it gave you consistent light. All that for a higher price. Consumers were not impressed.”

Today's CFLs have shifted to electronic ballasts that don't flicker or hum, and with the smaller glass sizes are no bigger than an A-19 bulb, says Howley. Programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar ratings keep raising the bar, he says. “As the EPA makes the standards for EnergyStar more and more stringent, it will close out the bad-quality, off-branded products that could create a poor experience for consumers.”

Some of the CFL's performance shortcomings are harder to overcome. Dimming is one. Incandescent lamps dim beautifully, with a continual taper from full-on to off. There are dimmable compact fluorescent lamps on the market, but they are not widely available, and are priced at a significant premium over standard CFLs. And although they are dimmable using the correct lighting controls, they tend to step down in increments and then, below a certain power level, simply turn off.

Applications exist where no suitable alternative to incandescent lamps is generally available, and many of these uses are specifically exempted from the legislation under consideration. Lighting for applicances such as ovens and refrigerators, decorative and small-form-factor lamps such as those used in chandeliers, and other specialty lighting applications will continue to be able to use incandescent technology.

Mercury Madness

Stronger, and more serious, criticisms of CFLs have been raised by environmentalists and others concerned about the lamps' mercury content. There is mercury, trace amounts of it, in the tube of any fluorescent lamp now made. This has always been the case, and not just for CFLs. Anyone who as a kid (or as an adult) smashed an 8-foot linear fluorescent tube just to hear the huge booming sound it makes as it shatters has released mercury into the environment. We've lived with these lamps for more than a generation now. We've lived with mercury thermometers much longer.

The amount of mercury in a CFL — about 5 mg — could sit on the tip of a ball-point pen (if it weren't so slippery and, well, mercurial). A watch battery contains five times more mercury, and a thermometer contains 1,000-times more. It's not insignificant, and it is definitely highly toxic. But it's not a new threat. People in the scientific, medical and industrial communities have known for many, many years how to handle mercury safely.

Mercury's greatest danger comes when it is vaporized and can be inhaled. The coal used to fire power plants releases mercury as it burns. The amount of mercury that would be released by combustion to power a succession of incandescent lamps over the lifespan of an equivalent compact fluorescent far exceeds the amount of liquid mercury in the tube of that compact fluorescent lamp, so even in terms of mercury exposure, the compact fluorescent is the more benign technology.

According to the EPA, a coal-fired power plant powering an average compact fluorescent lamp will release 3.3 mg of mercury into the atmosphere, but powering an incandescent will release 13.6 mg of mercury over the same time period. Even adding in the 5 mg of liquid mercury in a standard fluorescent tube, the mercury hazard presented by incandescents is larger.

The major lamp manufacturers have committed to reducing the amount of mercury contained in their lamps over the next one-to-five years. They, along with distributors and hazardous-waste contractors are also gearing up to meet the increased demand for safe disposal of compact fluorescent lamps they anticipate from growing use of the products.

Osram Sylvania, through a partnership with the environmental services firm Veolia Environment and FedEx, has created a recycling kit that consumers can order through its Web site at sylvania.com/recycle. The consumer fills the package with up to 15 CFLs of any brand, takes it to any FedEx/Kinko's location, and sends it to Osram Sylvania, where the lamps are deconstructed for reusable parts and the mercury safely disposed of. Larger kits are also available for commercial users. Philips and GE both refer consumers to www.lamprecycle.com to find out about local regulations and disposal options.

The Matter of Money

The cost of CFLs, at an average of $3 per lamp, compared with 25 cents to 50 cents for incandescent bulbs, is another sticking point for people opposed to the transition. The total life-time cost advantages of CFLs are compelling to both cost-conscious and energy-conscious consumers, but opponents point out that people on fixed incomes, people living at or below the poverty line and renters all would be more seriously affected by the higher up-front costs of CFLs regardless of their long-term payback.

Wal-Mart Corp., Bentonville, Ark., announced last month that it intends to sell 100 million CFLs over the next year, as part of a broader corporate “green” initiative. This sort of massive, market-based movement by the world's largest retailer — and Wal-Mart's not the only retailer focused on this market — could tip the scales on volume and drive the already-falling price of CFLs down further. For distributors and others in the electrical supply chain, this could signal more margin erosion on what was once a premium product.

Capacity Must Grow

All the major lamp manufacturers are busy ramping up production of CFLs; most have been expanding capacity continually for more than a decade. Yet they agree there is not enough capacity to meet the upsurge in demand that would happen if all incandescents were immediately replaced with CFLs. Almost all the CFLs in the world are manufactured in Asia and Eastern Europe, and the vast majority of production capacity is in China.

In their work to educate legislators, the lamp companies are encouraging them to give the market about 10 years to build up capacity sufficient to meet demand.

“We don't think doing it suddenly is responsible,” says Paul Simonetti, director of brand communications for Philips Electronics North America. “We see the transition running through 2016. Not just for CFLs, but for new halogen technologies and LED technologies as well, we think that's a reasonable time frame for manufacturing to adequately change over their production facilities, develop the technologies and transition their retail and distribution channels.”

Force of Law

Ultimately, all this may leave us with a broader question: Why have we arrived at a point where legislation is the preferred way to get the market to switch from an outdated, inefficient technology to one that provides so many benefits? Was it a failure of marketing, an inability to get the word out convincingly on the advantages of lighting efficiently?

Leaving aside the always-relevant prospect of politicians grandstanding for votes from people distressed at rising fuel prices, dependence on foreign oil and concerns about human contributions to global warming, the answer may be that the same forces drive the mass market and the bills introduced in state and federal legislative bodies.

It's possible that no new legislation is really necessary, says Benya of Benya Lighting Design. As a ban on incandescents primarily affects residential users, the legislation bypasses the areas where lighting's energy consumption is concentrated.

“From an energy-use standpoint, commercial is far and away the largest user of energy for lighting, followed by industrial lighting, followed by street and road lighting. Residential is a distant fourth or fifth,” he says. “Yet, whenever we get into an energy crisis, people start saying, ‘turn off the lights.’ It's a knee-jerk reaction, and mostly superfluous. If they enforced the building codes, this would be a non-issue.

“We're designing net-zero buildings now. The California Energy Commission (for which Benya frequently serves as a consultant) does some of the best enforcement in the country. If the California model was followed nationwide, we'd be better off already, and there would be no need to ban the bulb.”

What's certain is the general-purpose incandescent is on its way out, which will cause a shift throughout the electrical industry as manufacturers phase out production of incandescents. The shift will change some business models within the industry. The result will be more choices, more innovation, and the chance at last for the next generation of lamps to prove themselves and become the new icon for good ideas.

Lay Your Eyes on These Prizes

Some versions of the energy legislation in Congress now, including the Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 recently passed by the Senate, include provisions to promote technological development in lighting. The Senate bill would create a series of “Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prizes” for solid-state lighting:

$10 million to whoever can replace the 60W incandescent; $5 million for the PAR 38 halogen lamp; and a $5 million “Twenty-First Century Lamp” prize for a light source capable of:

  • Producing a light output greater than 1,200 lumens.

  • Having an efficiency greater than 150 lumens per watt.

  • Having a color rendering index greater than 90.

  • Having a color coordinate temperature between 2,800K and 3,000K.

  • Having a lifetime exceeding 25,000 hours.

This sort of incentive is warmly welcomed by the lamp manufacturers. “We need an X-Prize like the one for aerospace, for development of energy-efficient lighting,” says Stephanie J. Anderson, chief corporate spokesperson for Osram/Sylvania. “When manufacturers compete on efficiency, the result is more choice for consumers.”