How Many Engineers Will It Take To Change The Light Bulb?

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for incandescent lights to be 25% to 30% more energy efficient in 2012 than they are now.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

March 6, 2008

3 Min Read

Incandescent bulbs are on the verge of extinction in Australia; they're scheduled to be phased out between 2009 and 2010 in favor of more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.

The Australian government projects this will lead to saving more than 4 terawatt hours of electricity, 4 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and a savings of U.S. $371 million.

In the United States, there's no plan to ban them. Rather, light bulb makers will have to improve incandescent technology, which hasn't changed much in over 125 years, to meet goals set for the years 2012 and 2020 by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

There's considerable room for improvement. Light bulbs give off more heat than light: Less than 10% of the energy they use gets converted to light while more than 90% escapes as heat, according a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, "Lighting Efficiency Standards in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007: Are Incandescent Light Bulbs 'Banned'?"

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for incandescent lights to be 25% to 30% more energy efficient in 2012 than they are now. Upcoming Department of Energy rulemaking may require a 60% increase in efficiency by 2020.

The law mandates that a 100-watt light bulb today, which puts out 1,490 to 2,600 lumens, will have to draw only 72 watts in 2012.

Lights that don't meet the standards will not be allowed on the market, unless they fall into one of the 22 categories of exempted lights, such as bug lights. The new standards will save $40 billion on electricity costs and offset about 750 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030, according to the CRS report.

Philips Lighting last year introduced its Halogena Energy Saver line, which the company claims delivers 30% to 47% energy savings over traditional incandescent technology. Philips says its 70-watt Halogena bulb puts out the same amount of light as a traditional 100-watt incandescent light.

General Electric, founded by light bulb inventor Thomas Edison, said last year that by 2010 it expects to bring an incandescent light bulb to market that's twice as efficient as current incandescent lights and that eventually it expects to develop an incandescent light that's four times as energy efficient and comparable to compact fluorescent lights. The company said it had spent more than $200 million in the past four years developing more energy-efficient light technology.

Light-emitting diodes provide even more efficient illumination than compact fluorescent lights, but they're not widely available, are more costly, and may not operate well under extreme cold (less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit) or heat (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit).

How improved incandescent lights will fare in the market remains to be seen. Compact fluorescents, their main competition, doubled their sales in 2007 and accounted for 20% of the light bulb market, according to the Department of Energy.

But incandescent lights have an advantage: People don't hate them the way that they hate fluorescent lights.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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