Monday, May 7, 2007

WSJ light bulbs

Households Would Need New Bulbs
May 5, 2007 Wall Street Journal
By John J. Fialka and Kathryn Kranhold

Manufacturers and environmentalists are hammering out a nationwide energy-saving lighting standard that, if enacted by Congress, would effectively phase out the common household light bulb in about 10 years. That in turn could produce major cuts in the nation's electricity costs and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new standard is expected to compel a huge shift by American consumers and businesses away from incandescent bulbs to more efficient -- but also more expensive -- fluorescent models, by requiring more light per energy unit than is yielded by most incandescents in use. The winner, at least in the near term, likely would be the compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL.

Whatever rule is proposed by the groups would likely be incorporated into energy legislation passed last week by the Senate Energy Committee that the full chamber is set to debate by the end of the month, committee aides say. This bill, the Democrats' first major energy initiative since taking control of Congress in January, calls for new efficiency standards for appliances and motor vehicles and mandates the use of more alternative fuels, such as ethanol, by 2022.

While the move could face resistance from some consumer groups and from low- and fixed-income constituencies, Energy Committee aides say there is bipartisan support in Congress for a new lighting standard.

"Congress should do all it can to encourage industry and consumer groups to work with government in setting standards for energy-efficient products, including light bulbs and new lighting technologies," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who is chairman of the panel.

Fluorescent bulbs have been around for years and are known to be more economical over the long run, but consumers have shown a clear preference for the softer and more easily adjusted glow of incandescent bulbs, which also carry a much cheaper sticker price. Now, there is push toward using regulation to force adoption of the more energy-efficient product.

The Senate panel estimates a shift from the standard tungsten filament incandescent bulb and other relatively inefficient forms of lighting would save $18 billion in electricity costs every year. Because 50% of the nation's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, this would also reduce demand equivalent to that currently met by 80 coal-fired power plants. Burning coal releases pollutants including carbon dioxide, which scientists think is accelerating climate change, and mercury, which can damage the nervous systems of small children.

The move away from the current incandescent bulb, invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, would create at least an $8 billion market for more-efficient lighting, analysts say. There are four billion electric light sockets in the U.S., most of them in homes, and some would be filled with CFLs, which use 75% less energy and can last more than six times as long, according to industry estimates. Manufacturers expect over the next decade to provide consumers with other choices as well, since CFLs don't work as well in applications such as reading lamps.

"It's the right thing to do," says Randall B. Moorhead, vice president for the North American affiliate of Royal Phillips Electronics NV of the Netherlands. "But we're also hoping we'll make some money. It's not entirely altruistic."

The three biggest light-bulb makers, Philips, General Electric Co. and Osram Sylvania, a unit of Germany's Siemens AG, have more efficient lighting products in development. GE is the biggest seller of compact fluorescent lights in the U.S. In February, the Fairfield, Conn., company announced it would be introducing an incandescent bulb that will be comparably efficient to CFLs and would likely meet standards now being discussed. Manufacturers also are re-engineering light-emitting diodes that are currently too pricey for the consumer market but will likely fall in price over time.

One reason bulb makers are willing to negotiate a new federal standard is that a half-dozen states, led by California and Texas, are weighing bans on incandescent bulbs. Australia, Canada and the European Union are also considering phasing out such lights.

"If there are all these intrastate regulations, it will become tough as a skunk to get these things to work. It becomes very challenging to the retailer," says Richard Upton, president and chief executive of the American Lighting Association, which represents lamp makers and retail-lighting showrooms in the U.S. and Canada.

The talks on establishing a new nationwide standard include the bulb makers, the lighting association, the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others. They have been under way since March, after Phillips declared that incandescent bulbs should be phased out within 10 years.

"I think we're half to two-thirds of the way there," says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He predicts the result will be a two-stage federal standard that will require bulbs that use 30% less electricity within five years and bulbs that are 75% more efficient within 10 years. The talks are also aimed at standards that would remove the least-efficient street lights and fluorescent lights that are used in offices.

The resulting sharp cut in electricity demand would be the quickest and most effective energy curb in this year's energy bills, says Bill Prindle, acting executive director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Noting that electricity consumption is scheduled to increase by 20% by 2020, Mr. Prindle says new "clean tech" energy forms such as alternate fuels and advanced wind power won't begin to reduce emissions until energy demand is cut. "We have to do both," he says.

GE's Earl Jones, senior counsel for the company's consumer and industrial business, says the goal is to agree on efficiency standards that reduce greenhouse gases and cut energy consumption, but also "satisfy basic consumer interest in the quality of light in their home and at work."

"The winners will be the manufacturers whose technology can deliver the highest lumens without compromising quality of light," Mr. Jones said. A lumen is a measure of light.

Shifting to compact fluorescent light bulbs will be more expensive for homeowners at the outset. Incandescent bulbs can be bought as cheaply as 25 cents, but compact fluorescent bulbs can cost between $2 and $3. However, because the more-expensive bulbs use much less electricity and last far longer, they can pay for themselves in as little as six months, depending on usage, says Jeff Harris, vice president for the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, government, environmental and consumer leaders that advocates efficiency policies that minimize costs to society and consumers. In addition, the prices of compact fluorescents are falling. But it isn't known whether CFLs will be more economical or efficient than future technologies.

There are other drawbacks that have limited the more efficient bulb's market penetration. Aside from lighting quality, compact fluorescent bulbs include a tiny amount of mercury that would require their disposal through recycling programs. According to Mr. Moorhead of Philips, CFLs only fill an estimated 6% of American sockets.

GE and Osram, in weighing the details of a new standard, need to ensure that they have enough time to retrofit their incandescent-light factories to make more energy-efficient lights. Philips doesn't have any incandescent factories in the U.S. CFLs, which are much more labor intensive, are mostly manufactured in China.

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