Light Goes Out on Toshiba’s 120 Year Old Incandescant Bulb Production Line

Toshiba, one of Japan’s largest makers of lighting products, announced that it had permanently ended production Wednesday of incandescent light bulbs, a year ahead of schedule.

Manufacturers worldwide have begun phasing out production of incandescents in favor of compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, which are more energy efficient and last longer. Several nations and the EU have plans to ban the sale of incandescents in the next few years. In the US, a phased ban on the sale of 100 watt incandescents begins in 2012.

Toshiba had been making incandescents since 1890, when a company that would eventually become part of Toshiba began production at 10 bulbs a day. Production peaked in 1978 at 80 million (see chart here).

Not out of the woods yet

Before we cheer the “inevitability” of CFL ascendancy over incandescents, however, it should be pointed out that in the US sales of CFLs peaked in 2007 and have not yet recovered.

Two factors are suspected in the drop: the higher cost of CFLs, and their performance. Given the state of the economy the last couple years, it’s not surprising consumers might chose less expensive incandescents (even if the math shows CFLs are cheaper over the long run).

State and local governments and utilities have also been scaling back CFL promotion programs. In Ohio, a utility got in hot water after sending customers CFLs and then charging them for the bulbs, whether they wanted them or not.

As for performance, while there is no question CFLs last longer and use less energy than incandescents, some consider them less visually pleasing than traditional bulbs, which come in a variety of styles and luminosities.

How much do you want to know about light bulbs?

..because Energy Star has an actually fascinating PDF on its website showing the US market penetration of CFLs versus incandescents. The data shows use of CFLs growing by about 50 percent a year from 2000 to 2007, and predicts a full recovery in 2010. But CFLs still have only 23 percent of the market in the US, and most American households have fewer than five CFLs installed. As with many green technologies (like renewable energy), an industry can have enormous growth and still barely make a dent in the hegemony of traditional technologies.

The data suggests however that CFLs, LEDs and other, newer lighting technologies (including more efficient incandescents) will eventually supplant the traditional light bulb. Eventually.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.