There’s been a lot of press coverage recently of the incandescent lighting provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and it’s largely been of the form “The US Government is banning incandescent light bulbs.”
While this makes for good prime-time newsvertainment, it’s not really true.
The tungsten light bulb was invented in 1905 as a fairly radical improvement on the earlier carbon filament bulbs, which would generally last less than a week before burning out. The humble incandescent light bulb was pretty constantly improved — both in terms of lifetime and efficiency — until about 1964. At that point in time, a bulb that used 100 watts could put out between 1,300 and 1,700 lumens. And that’s where we are now. The most commonly used incandescent bulbs have seen no real improvements in the past 45 years.
Now, let’s look at what EISA actually says about incandescent bulbs. A careful reading shows that it doesn’t eliminate incandescent bulbs. Far from it. All it does is set minimum efficiency standards for them. The relevant information comes from Pub.L. 110-140, Subtitle B, Section 321 (a)(3)(A)(ii)(I)(cc); the important columns from the table are:
|1490 – 2600
|1050 – 1489
|750 – 1049
|310 – 749
The four lines in the table correspond roughly to modern 100, 75, 60, and 40 watt bulbs respectively. So, those are certainly aggressive compared to the ’60′s technology that we’re using today. But it’s not a “ban on incandescent bulbs” any more than recent automobile efficiency regulations are a “ban on internal combustion engines.”
In fact, you can already buy, right now in 2009, a number of bulbs that meet these standards. Sure, they’re a bit pricey right now, but so were 13 SEER air conditioners five years ago. When regulations force minimum efficiency standards, economies of scale almost always kick in and drop the prices to be very close to those of the older, less efficient technologies.
On top of this, we’ve seen some extremely promising advances in incandescent technologies, including laser treatment of filaments and coatings that turn waste heat into visible light. Either of these alone would completely blow the EISA standards out of the water, beating them by a margin of more than 30%. And there’s no reason to believe that they can’t be combined with each other for additional efficiencies.
So, before you start writing your eulogies for the humble incandescent bulb, I’d give the industry some time to show us what they can do when given a challenge.
Edit: there are additional EISA provisions that kick in January 1st, 2020; these require an efficiency of 45 lumens per watt or better. This will be more difficult, but the kinds of advances I talk about above are already close to this standard — the laser technique gets you to 35 lumens per watt — so even that isn’t likely to be incandescent’s death knell.