Earlier this month, when Ikea announced this will be its last year selling incandescent light bulbs, the retailer billed it as an early, pro-sustainability move before federal law "bans" the famously inefficient lamps.
Yet even after the phaseout is complete on New Year's Day, Ikea shoppers will still find bulbs that, technically, are incandescents, but they will be pricier and more efficient than their elderly cousins.
The lighting industry hopes to get a final financial flicker from the incandescent light bulb by making it more efficient before it heads off the commercial stage.
Press coverage has described federal law on incandescents as a "ban," although this is not strictly true. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 raised efficiency standards for "general service" incandescent lamps, the light bulb known to millions. The targets will take full effect in 2014.
However, these standards are high enough that incandescents used today -- which basically resemble the one designed by Thomas Edison in 1879 and perfected by General Electric in 1906 -- won't make the grade.
The U.S. phaseout parallels efforts in other wealthy countries, as well as some developing countries, to reduce incandescent use or ban them outright.
In an incandescent, electricity passes through a filament made of tungsten; the resistance in the metal causes it to glow, or incandesce. But 90 percent of the energy is lost as heat. That's why they've been described as "heaters that give off a little light."
Remaining a hot commodity, for a while
Manufacturers have taken national phaseouts as a signal to start looking further into the future. They've moved compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), the squiggly bulbs that use 75 percent less energy than incandescents, closer to the mainstream. They've begun developing light-emitting diode, or LED, and solid-state technology that could offer ultra-efficiency while appealing to consumers who want the feel of a classic light bulb.
In the meantime, incandescents will still get time to make their final bows.
According to Andrew Delaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, Edison's design faces certain extinction. But other incandescent technologies may stick around as long as companies can keep them competitive with other, more efficient light bulbs. "If a smart engineer or someone figures out how to produce more light and less waste heat, then have at it," he said.
The leading option will be a halogen technology, which also uses a tungsten filament that "incandesces," but wraps it with a halogen gas. The bulb puts out 25 to 30 percent more light for every watt.
Another trick: Surround the filament with a film that reflects the heat back at it, making it a little hotter and brighter.
These tricks aren't unknown to bulb makers, but they are weighing how many tricks the incandescent bulb has left.
Paul Simonetti, a spokesman for Philips, said its "Halogena" has been out for a few years; it is about a third more efficient than standard bulbs and costs about $4. But when standards are raised in 2014, he said, Halogena won't have much time left.
"The halogen, which is a good replacement right now, actually would not meet the standard in 2020," he said. "The long-term solutions are in LEDs. That's what we see."
General Electric Co., another major bulb producer, began work on an "advanced incandescent" several years ago, expecting it could serve as a bridge to future lighting technologies. Then, in 2008, GE realized progress wasn't moving as rapidly as hoped, and that the LED labs were leaping ahead. The company canceled the program.
In the near term, the company expects CFLs and halogens to dominate sales.
The 'advanced incandescent' may be an oxymoron
"In the short term, I think CFL and halogen still have a pretty good runway, because of the initial price point," said Steve Briggs, GE Lighting's global LED product leader. "Years five to 10, you'll start to see LED cannibalize all technologies."
By the end of the decade, store shelves could look very different.
But first there will be some sticker shock. Edison's goal, which has been traditionally followed by the bulb industry he created, was: "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."
For example, Ikea's website lists a four-pack of its Glöda incandescents for 77 cents. The cheapest energy-efficient bulb, a Sparsam CFL, runs $4 for a two-pack.
It isn't much more money, especially when factoring in the energy savings over the lifetime of the bulb. But for those accustomed to grabbing the cheapest box from the rack, the era of dirt-cheap light bulbs appears to going the way of the Dark Ages.
In the future, "you won't find anything as cheap as incandescent," Briggs said.
Retailers hesitated to forecast what light bulbs will cost in 10 years, but observers are betting the cheapest bulbs will be halogens and CFLs.
Jeff Harris, vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, said when halogens are mass-produced, they should be in the same ballpark as CFLs -- which even today have dropped below $2 in some stores.
But he added that halogens and CFLs are built to last for years longer than incandescents, and that consumers may come to like buying fewer replacements than they used to. "That's changing the way people are thinking about lighting," he said. "It's not as much of a disposable as it used to be."
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