It's lights out as last major bulb plant falls to progress

The Washington PostSeptember 10, 2010 

— The last major GE factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs in the United States is closing this month, marking a small, sad exit for a product and company that can trace their roots to Thomas Alva Edison's innovations in the 1870s.

The remaining 200 workers at the plant here will lose their jobs.

"Now what're we going to do?" said Toby Savolainen, 49, who like many others worked for decades at the factory, making bulbs now deemed wasteful.

During the recession, political and business leaders have held out the promise that American advances, particularly in green technology, might stem the decades-long decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. But as the lighting industry shows, even when the government pushes companies toward environmental innovations and Americans come up with them, the manufacture of the next generation technology can still end up overseas.

What made the plant here vulnerable is, in part, a 2007 energy conservation measure passed by Congress that set standards essentially banning ordinary incandescents by 2014. The law will force millions of American households to switch to more efficient bulbs.

The resulting savings in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to be immense. But the move also had unintended consequences.

Rather than setting off a boom in the U.S. manufacture of replacement lights, the leading replacement lights are compact fluorescents, or CFLs, which are made almost entirely in China.

Consisting of glass tubes twisted into a spiral, they require more hand labor, which is cheaper there. So though they were first developed by American engineers in the 1970s, none of the major brands make CFLs in the United States.

As a means of creating U.S. jobs, the Obama administration has promoted the nation's "green economy" - solar power, electric cars, wind turbines - with the idea that U.S. innovations in those fields may translate into U.S. factories. President Barack Obama said last month that he expects the government's commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012, one step in a larger journey planned to restore U.S. manufacturing.

In Obama's vision, the nation's mastery of new technology will create American manufacturing jobs.

"When folks lift up the hoods on the cars of the future, I want them to see engines stamped 'Made in America,' " Obama said in an August speech at a Wisconsin plant. "When new batteries to store solar power come off the line, I want to see printed on the side, 'Made in America.' When new technologies are developed and new industries are formed, I want them made right here in America. That's what we're fighting for."

But a closer look at the lighting industry reveals that isn't going to be easy.

CFL lead lost

At one time, the United States was ahead of the game in CFLs.

After the 1973 energy crisis, a GE engineer named Ed Hammer and others at the company's famed Nela Park research laboratories were tinkering with different methods of saving electricity with fluorescent lights.

In a standard incandescent bulb, in which the filament is electrified until it glows, only about 10 percent of the electricity is transformed into light; the rest generates heat as a side effect. A typical fluorescent uses about 75 percent less electricity than an incandescent to produce the same amount of light.

The trouble facing Hammer was that fluorescents are most efficient in long tubes. But long, linear tubes don't fit into the same lamp fixtures that the standard incandescent bulbs do.

Working with a team of glass blowers, Hammer twisted the tubes into a spiral. But bending all that glass required lots of manual labor.

"Without automation, it was economically unfeasible," Hammer said.

The company decided to make investments in other types of lighting.

The next major innovator to try his hand at CFLs was Ellis Yan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, who had started his own lighting business in China and then in the early '90s turned his attention to the possibilities of CFLs.

To make CFLs, he had workers in China sit beside furnaces and bend the glass by hand. Even with the low-wages there, the first attempts were very expensive, clunky and flickered when turned on, he said. But he persisted.

The business prospered. Today, about a quarter of the lights sold in the United States are CFLs, according to NEMA, an industry association. Of those, Yan says, he manufactures more than half.

U.S. plant stymied

Yan wants to build a U.S. factory, though he so far has been unable to secure $12.5 million in government funding for the project.

Manufacturing in the United States would add 10 percent or more to the cost of building a standard CFL, he said, but retailers have indicated that there is a demand for products manufactured domestically.

"Retailers tell me people ask for 'Made in the USA,'" Yan said. "I tell them the product will cost 45 to 50 cents more. They say people will pay for it."

When it became obvious that the United Sates was going to have energy standards, GE developed a plan to see what it would take to retrofit a plant that makes traditional incandescents into one that makes CFLs. Even with a $40 million investment and automation, the disparity in wages and other factors made it uneconomical. The new plant's CFLs would have cost about 50 percent more than those from China, GE officials said.

In announcing the plant closure, GE said in a news release that "a variety of energy regulations," including those in the United States, "will soon make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester Plant obsolete."

"For those who make incandescent bulbs, the law was bad for business," Yan said. "For people like us, it was very good."

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