Big lighting firm leads move to phase out incandescent bulb

Aiming to slow global warming through energy efficiency, a coalition led by the world's largest lighting manufacturer is planning to phase out energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs in the United States by 2016.

The push to retire Thomas Edison's 125-year-old invention was set to be unveiled Wednesday in Washington. The coalition includes Royal Philips Electronics, the Netherlands-based light-bulb manufacturer, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and other environmental and energy-efficiency groups.

If it takes hold, the phaseout could save enough energy to eliminate the need to build 80 of the 150 or so coal-fired power plants now planned nationwide, the coalition estimates. That, in turn, would prevent about 158 million tons of carbon dioxide annually and save consumers $18 billion a year in electric costs.

"This old-style, inefficient light was a great invention that has now outlived its useful purpose," said Brian Dundon, chief executive officer of Philips's North American lighting division, in a statement.

It's not clear how much support a firm phaseout has. Notably absent from the coalition are General Electric, a leading US manufacturer, and bulbmaker Osram- Sylvania, the US division of German manufacturer Osram.

On March 2, a European trade group that includes the world's largest lighting manufacturers – GE, Siemens AG, and Philips – announced a pact to phase out incandescent bulbs in the European Union. That pact did not set a timetable, however.

"We think [a ban] is absolutely unnecessary," GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman told the Monitor earlier this month. "GE supports national policy that will drive improved energy standards for all lighting products, regardless of the technologies."

The company recently announced a far more efficient incandescent bulb technology to be ready by 2012 that it says would use no more energy than today's energy saving compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

The coalition's proposed phaseout is not an outright ban. Instead, it would use performance standards, which would quickly weed out technology as inefficient as Edison's. By going public, the coalition hopes to ratchet up pressure on other manufacturers, as well as on the US Energy Department, to embrace tougher standards.

Today's incandescent bulbs are energy gluttons. Less than 10 percent of their power is used for light. The rest generates heat. Because the bulbs occupy most of the estimated 4 billion screw-in sockets in the US, a shift toward super-efficient light bulbs could become a swift and significant early step in curbing climate change. CFL bulbs use about a quarter of the energy of an incandescent. Other energy-saving options include advanced halogen lights and light-emitting diodes or LEDs.

Federal legislation mandating new efficiency standards is needed to make the phaseout work, coalition officials agree. Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas and Rep. Donald Manzullo (R) of Illinois are expected to push legislation to move the plan along. California regulators are expected to move even faster.

While many consumers have shunned CFLs for the warmer glow of incandescents, gains in CFL and halogen technologies are expected to meet demand for warm glow without waste, experts say. Although CFLs contain a tiny bit of mercury, it is being steadily reduced. And recycling efforts are growing, observers say.

"The basic utility incandescent bulb can probably be phased out without people being hurt by it," says Patricia Rizzo, of the lighting research center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "The current CFL has the right qualities so that it can now pretty much replace the basic 'A' lamp that's been around since 1879."

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