2010: the End of the Incandescent

Ransom Riggs

You had a good run, incandescent light bulbs. Essentially unchanged since Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent bulb in 1879, save for occasional improvements in efficiency and production cost, it served us well for more than 100 years. But now the EU has declared that 2010 will be the official funeral of the incandescent light bulb -- in Europe, at least. Canada, Australia, the Philippines and even Cuba have announced similar ban dates -- the US has too, but was a little slower on the uptake -- our ban doesn't go into effect until 2014. (The bans don't restrict the use of incandescents, only their sale.)

The well-publicized trouble with incandescents, of course, is that 90% of the power they consume is turned into heat rather than light. Since governments around the world have gotten ban-happy, General Electric and other incandescent bulb manufacturers have announced that they're working on new bulbs called "high-efficiency incandescents" that may be up to four times more efficient than the kind we currently have -- but it may be a case of too little, too late. CFLs use about a fifth of the energy it takes to power an incandescent.

Amazingly, the compact flourescent bulbs that seem so revolutionary today were actually developed in 1973, in response to the oil crisis -- by General Electric! But the $25 million it would've cost to build factories to produce the new bulbs was deemed too expensive. The design was shelved, and eventually leaked to other companies, who introduced them into the global market in the early 80s, where they've slowly but steadily grown in popularity. Widespread adoption of CFLs in American households could reduce household power usage by up to 7% across the country. If this seems like a small number, consider that much of the lighting power used in the US is in parking lots and big box stores -- and once those guys switch to more efficient lighting, we'll see some serious drops in power consumption across the board.

Bring on the bans!