Wall Street Journal: America's Affair With The Light Bulb

Thomas Edison unveiled his incandescent bulb in 1879, and since then it has illuminated the world. But it is highly inefficient, generating 90% heat and 10% light. "The only thing worse is a candle flame," says Terry McGowan, of the American Lighting Association, a trade group. There is a better bulb. In fact, there are several. The spiral-shaped "compact fluorescent," around for years, produces the same amount of light as its incandescent ancestor with one-quarter the energy. It lasts for years, provides light in an array of hues, and, by lowering electricity bills, pays for itself in about seven months. And the latest bright idea, the light-emitting diode, costs even more but lasts far longer than compact fluorescents. LED bulbs have been used mostly for consumer electronics and in commercial applications such as traffic lights.


Studies say improving the efficiency of the light bulb is among the easiest ways to start meaningfully curbing fossil-fuel consumption. Lighting accounts for some 20% of residential electricity use in the U.S.-- a lot to fritter away as wasted heat. Yet about 80% of all bulbs sold to U.S. consumers are incandescent, which often cost less than 25 cents apiece, about one-tenth the price of a compact fluorescent.


"I buy the cheap ones," Dallas resident Betty Ferrell said the other day as she reached for a pack of incandescent at a local Walmart store. "They may not be cheap in the long run," she said, "but they're cheap for what I have in my purse now."


In fact, Americans have been so reluctant to buy the new bulbs that the federal government is about to force their hand. A recent law will, in effect, ban incandescent bulbs for most uses by 2014.


Market Watch's Steve Gelsi reports from the 2009 Lightfair International conference, where offering more illumination for less power and less money is now the name of the game. He discusses compact florescent lamps, or CFLs, with ac­ tor and activist Ed Begley Jr. and light emitting diodes, or LEOs, with Osram Sylvania CEO Charles Jerabek.


But the switch to fluorescents won't settle consumers' dilemma about whether to pay now, for a more expensive bulb, or pay later, for more electricity. Consumers still will have the option of buying halogen bulbs, which fall in between incandescent and fluorescents in efficiency and price. And LEOs for household use are starting to show up in stores.

Never before has there been such a flowering of practical energy-saving products, from double-pane windows to front­ loading washing machines to hybrid gasoline-and-electric cars. Yet they cost far more to buy than the less-efficient technologies they seek to replace-- a big hurdle in places like the U.S., where electricity is such a small component of most household budgets that it rarely plays a role in shopping decisions.


"If energy is dirt cheap, it gets treated like dirt," says Arthur Rosenfeld, a physicist who headed a team of scientists at the federal government's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, that did some of the early development work on compact-fluorescent bulbs. "That's been the problem."


Mr. Edison's incandescent light bulb, introduced the same year as Ivory soap, is relatively simple. Inside the glass bulb sits a wire, or filament. When a switch is flipped, an electric current hits the filament, which heats up and glows.


The fluorescent bulb, launched commercially in the late 1930s, is more refined. It consists of a glass tube containing mercury and coated on the inside with phosphor. Electrified, the mercury vapor causes the phosphor molecules to vibrate, producing light.


The combination of the mercury and the phosphor produces less heat and more light than an incandescent, making it more efficient. Because the bulb has no filament that can break, it lasts longer. Typically, fluorescent light has a blue tinge, compared with incandescent light's reddish hue.

Fluorescents became popular in offices and factories in the 1940s. But they didn't catch on in homes. They required specialized fixtures. And Americans, raised on the warm glow of incandescent, found the fluorescent's sharper light harsh.


"Compact" versions that could be screwed into conventional incandescent sockets arrived after the oil shocks of the 1970s. But they were still too big to fit under many lampshades. The bulbs flickered and hummed. And their price-­ about $20 apiece-- deterred most consumers, especially because oil prices slumped in the 1980s, damping the appeal of energy-saving devices.

By the start of this decade, the fluorescent bulb had progressed to its current squiggly shape. Costs fell as technology improved and production shifted to China. Based on average U.S. electricity prices, by 2005 the bulb paid for itself in less than a year, according to the Department of Energy. Just then, energy prices soared, sparking a big rise in sales.


But sales of compact fluorescents have dropped in the current recession, to 21% of total U.S. consumer light-bulb sales in 2008 from 23% in 2007, according to the DOE.


In Europe and Japan, where electricity costs more, fluorescent lights are more popular. To improve the bulbs' appeal to Americans, manufacturers are adjusting their phosphor blends to mimic redder incandescent. Fluorescent light "doesn't make you look as good," says Timothy Lesch, a vice president at Osram Sylvania, a big bulb manufacturer. He has compact fluorescent bulbs throughout his house, but not in those rooms where he spends a lot of time. "They're not in my den," he says.

As manufacturers continue tweaking, buying a light bulb has become a complicated venture. A Walmart in Plano, Texas, outside Dallas, has nine varieties of bulbs claiming to fulfill the role of a traditional 60-watt incandescent. Some advertise "cool" light; others "soft." Promised lifetimes range from five years to eight. As for electricity savings, manufacturers claim anywhere from $36 to $56 a bulb.


Stacy Parks, financial manager for a Dallas information-technology company, bought the brightest compact fluorescents she could find to light her front walkway: 42-watt models, akin to blazing 150-watt incandescent. But when she tried out the bulbs, she says, the path "looked like a landing strip." She eventually replaced the bright lights with dimmer fluorescents.


Most industrial countries, including the U.S., are largely phasing out the incandescent over the next several years. Yet even if that pushes down the bulb's price further, as industry officials predict, consumers still will have to pay much more for a compact fluorescent than they are accustomed to paying for an incandescent.


And technology marches on. The LED is eclipsing the compact fluorescent as the cutting-edge bulb. Walmart Stores has started selling a consumer LED bulb that uses just seven watts of electricity and claims to last for more than 13 years. It costs around $35 --a daunting price tag for a light bulb. "We're kind of testing the waters," says Rand Wad­ doups, Walmart’s senior director of strategy and sustainability. "This is a behavior change, and that requires some work."