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Say goodby to the good old days of the incandescent light bulb, which required frequent changes leading to risk of injury.

Consumer Technology

A Global Cartel Created The Modern Incandescent Light Bulb, Which Is Now Banned

Say goodby to the good old days of the ordinary household incandescent light bulb, which required frequent changes, leading to risk of injury.

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The long, slow death of the ordinary household incandescent light bulb is all over but the shouting. Come to think of it, nobody is even up for the shouting. That’s rather odd, isn’t it? Plenty of people were shouting, ranting, and raging 10 years ago, when the US Department of Energy first began putting the squeeze on incandescent bulbs. Who is ranting now? Why are they so quiet? And whatever happened to the Phoebus light bulb cartel?

The Government Is Coming For Your Light Bulbs

It all started when Congress passed the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which tasked the U.S. Department of Energy to administer new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. The Energy Department implements efficiency standards for about 60 different categories of appliances and equipment, so light bulbs are not much of a stretch.

The law did not actually ban incandescent lights. It did call for new efficiency standards for general service lamps, meaning the bulbs typically used in household lighting. A number of specialty bulbs were not covered by the new standards.

The law also called for the standards to be phased in gradually beginning in 2012, providing manufacturers with time to bring more efficient technologies to market. That sounds mild enough, but soon after the law was passed it caught the attention of the ubiquitous talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who rose to fame in the early 2000s by ginning up outrage over policies favored by Democratic lawmakers and their voters.

Limbaugh ruled the conservative media roost back then, and he had a field day over the supposed “light bulb ban” in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, likely in an effort to stir up votes for the Republican candidate.

“Liberty, Incandescent Lightbulbs and the Global Warming Hoax,” screamed one representative headline in the Limbaugh transcript archives from January 3, 2008.

“Now, what this is, folks, is death by a thousand little cuts. This is how liberty dies: drip, drip, drip,” Limbaugh ranted, and he was just warming up.

“There’s going to be a black market and everything until, you know, jackbooted thugs of the Gore regime start knocking down your front door to come in and inspect the kind of lightbulbs you’re using,” he added.

Rage Against The Light Bulb Ban

Republican lawmakers mostly kept their light bulb powder dry in 2008, when fellow Republican George Bush was still in office. They were under no such constraints after Democratic President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

The supposed “light bulb ban” sparked a frenzy of rhetoric among Republican lawmakers, with a gleeful assist from Limbaugh and other right wing pundits.

“Last year, House Republicans waged a Star Wars-worthy battle to stop a federal law that sets new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs,” CleanTechnica observed in 2012.

“Hold on to your seat belts, the light bulb wars have just blown up again,” we observed in 2013, while taking note of Republican lawmakers who oppose government control over energy policy but affirm government control over anyone who is capable of carrying a pregnancy.

“Whenever prominent Republicans say really weird things about the internal workings of the female body, it’s a sure bet that an attack on energy efficiency standards for light bulbs is in the works,” we added in 2019 (more CleanTechnica coverage is here).

Everybody Loves Energy Efficient Lighting

Despite efforts to roll back the new standards during the Trump administration, the horses had already left the barn. Lighting manufacturers were coming up with new energy-saving technologies hand over fist, with LED (light emitting diode) technology gaining the upper hand.

“By 2035, the majority of lighting installations are anticipated to use LED technology, and energy savings from LED lighting could top 569 TWh annually by 2035, equal to the annual energy output of more than 92 1,000 MW power plants,” the Energy Department enthuses.

Cutting 92 power plants out of the nation’s power generation profile is good. Adding a layer of smart app-based energy efficiency technology is even better. CleanTechnica heard from the home energy firm Savant earlier this week on that topic, and they provided us with some insights from Kara Perdue, who is the VP of Product Management at the company’s GE Lighting branch.

“While LED is a positive step forward on the journey to greater energy savings, smart lighting takes it a step further by lowering energy bills more while providing the ultimate in convenience,” Perdue said. “These products feature LED technology and can be easily controlled or automated through an app making them extremely energy and user friendly.”

“The easier it is to put lights on a timer for automatic shut off or to hit a button on a mobile app to turn off lights after leaving home, the better the chances are that users will adopt those green habits and achieve the best possible efficiency,” she added.

Light bulb users can also check out the Energy Department’s new Energy Savings Hub to look for discounts, tax credits and other savings on home energy systems.

Whatever Happened To The Phoebus Light Bulb Cartel?

As for the latest battle in the light bulb wars, last year the Energy Department moved forward on new standards for general service lamps (aka ordinary household light bulbs). By that time, right wing attention was turning to the preservation of another outdated technology, the gas stove. Along with other current events, the gas stove issue seems to have distracted the foes of energy efficiency, at least for now.

Besides, members of the light bulb-using public seem to like the idea of saving money on their utility bills while not having to change their bulbs as often, which can involve the risk of injury.

LEDs consume 75% less energy and last up to 25 to 50 times longer than incandescent lightbulbs,” the Energy Department points out.

From a technology perspective, by the turn of the 21st century it really was clear that the 130-year-old, energy-sucking system at work in incandescent lighting was overdue for a makeover. According to the Energy Department, 90% of the energy used for incandescent lighting is wasted in the form of heat.

It didn’t have to be that way. Back in 2014 the journal IEEE Spectrum published an article that sheds some light, so to speak, on the sorry state of modern incandescent light bulbs.

As described by IEEE reporter Markus Krajewski, the modern incandescent light bulb was birthed in Geneva, on December 23, 1924, at a meeting of representatives from leading bulb manufacturers around the world.

“…the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach,” Krajewski recounts.

Check out the full article for many fascinating details. For those of you on the go, the meat of the matter is that Phoebus withered away after just a few years. However, in its short life span, the cartel managed to ensure that the modern light bulb would also have a short life span.

“Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb,” notes Krajewski. “By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common.”

The new Energy Department standard took effect on August 1. If you’ve come across any festering outrage over light bulbs since then, drop us a note on the comment thread. Otherwise, we’ll consider this case officially closed.

Find me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post LinkedIn, and Spoutible, or @Casey on Mastodon.

Image: Energy efficient light bulbs courtesy of US Department of Energy.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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