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Tina Casey headshot

Congress Revives Zombie Light Bulbs as Energy Dept. Funds New Tech

By Tina Casey

The House of Representatives and the Department of Energy played out their own version of the zombie apocalypse last week, as the House voted to reanimate the all-but-dead incandescent light bulb and the Energy Department countered with the announcement of $7 million more in funding to develop new, more energy efficient lighting technologies.

Fittingly, The House vote took place at night on June 5. By voice vote, members approved an amendment to the 2012 Energy and Water spending bill that would prevent DOE from enforcing the phase-in of new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs...but that could turn out to be a classic case of locking the barn door after the horses are gone.

Phasing out inefficient light bulbs

Though the new standards are required by a 2007 law enacted under President Bush, the so-called light bulb “ban” has become a favorite target of conservative legislators and pundits during President Obama’s term in office.

The law is actually not a direct ban on any particular technology, but in effect it phases out the low-cost, but notoriously inefficient conventional incandescent bulb. That technology, which is based on heating a filament, has not changed substantially in more than 100 years.

Incandescent bulbs typically convert only 10 percent of their incoming energy into light and the rest is expelled as heat.

The new amendment to the 2013 spending bill was sponsored by Texas Representative Michael Burgess, who sponsored legislation last year. It  does not repeal the new standards, but it does eliminate funds for enforcement.

Using new light bulbs as a marketing hook

Even if the amendment sticks, it is already a moot point. The phase-in began on January 1 of this year with support from manufacturers and retailers, particularly Ikea, which jumped the gun on other retailers by self-enforcing the rule in advance, beginning last year.

Some lighting companies have already developed enhanced incandescent bulbs meeting the new standard, and as a whole the lighting industry - with help from DOE funding - has committed to emerging technologies that far exceed the new standard while mimicking incandescent lights more closely (Philips provides some notable examples).

A solid foundation for low cost lighting

The latest $7 million round of funding, announced yesterday by DOE, will go to three companies, with a particular focus on technologies that help to lower the cost of LED lighting by improving the manufacturing process.

Cree Inc. of Durham, North Carolina will get $2,344,000 to develop its existing LED (light emitting diode) technology. Cree LEDs use relatively few raw materials compared to other LEDs, resulting in lower manufacturing and other lifecycle costs.

As a condition of the award, Cree’s new LEDs will be designed to last at least 50,000 hours. By comparison, the lifespan of standard incandescent bulbs is in the range of 1,000-2,000 hours.

The second award focuses more tightly on the lifecycle metrics of LED lighting. The awardee, KLA-Tencor of Milpitas, California, won $3,995,000 to develop a tool that will help manufacturers to lower their costs by achieving more uniformity in the LED production process.

Similarly, the third award of $800,000 went to k-Space Associates of Dexter, Michigan, for the development of a measuring tool for a high-precision manufacturing process for OLED (organic light emitting diode) technology.

OLEDs are semiconductor devices that generate light directly from electricity, as do LEDs, but the OLED semiconductor contains layers of organic material sandwiched in between inorganic material.

OLEDs provide a wide potential for integration with building elements including nonlinear surfaces, walls, ceilings and even windows, resulting in new aesthetic applications as well as practical ones.

This additional design element makes the global OLED market particularly competitive, so in terms of the U.S. manufacturing position, the k-Space award is especially notable. According to DOE, the new measurement tool will:

“…ultimately improve the efficiency, color, and lifetime of OLEDs. This development, a first for the industry, will serve as a platform for future large‐scale OLED production facilities, paving the way for a strong U.S. presence in OLED manufacturing.”

In short, with the help of DOE funding, the U.S. lighting sector is poised for a manufacturing revival. It would be more helpful if legislators like Burgess spent less time punting light bulbs and more time working on legislation that supports economic activity and job creation in the U.S.

Image: Some rights reserved by mystery monotreme

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey