12/12/2011 08:59 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

GE Brings Green Lights to Life

At GE’s historic 90-acre Nela Park in Cleveland--home to America's first industrial park and to GE Lighting--a light bulb revolution is underway that could help solve one of the world’s greatest environmental threats: climate change.

Tucked away in a brick lab building of this leafy technology research campus, veteran GE lighting engineer and physicist Gary Allen reviews a chart of global greenhouse gas emissions that points in one direction—up. But, Allen says, there’s a simple step we can take to curtail these emissions and change course; screw in a more efficient light bulb. “The number one thing we can do to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to change our light’s the strongest lever we have to get CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. So if you are going to spend money on anything, spend it on energy efficient lighting.”

And there’s one more advantage to the light bulb revolution; jobs. Last year, GE invested $60 million to produce energy efficient florescent bulbs at its plant in Bucyrus, OH, creating about 100 new positions in job-hungry Ohio. And there are over 100 jobs posted on GE Lighting's website now.

For the past 24 years, Allen has been a key engineer and physicist at GE’s world-renowned lighting research center (check out his Twitter page here), where many of the 700 people who work there toil away on the latest lighting product designs and strategies. All that tinkering in the labs has paid off. Today there are more money saving, energy efficient bulbs on the market than ever before, including advanced incandescents, compact fluorescent and LEDs.

And more are on the way. Industry powerhouses like GESylvania and Philips are all coming out with dozens of new lighting products that will result in huge energy savings—and help save us all from the dire consequences of a rapidly changing climate. (Check out the January Consumer Reports issue on new efficient light bulbs). Anyone who still wonders if the threat is real should check out new figures released for greenhouse gas emissions; they jumped to record levels last year during a global recession. Just wait until a global recovery takes hold.

Gary Allen in GE's lighting lab                        Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Why are efficient light bulbs so important? Simple, there are billions of them. Think about the last time you flew on a cloudless night and gazed at the millions  of lights twinkling below, spread out along the darkened landscape like an electronic tapestry. Most are burning wasted heat (the old fashioned incandescent bulb wastes 90% of its energy), sucking money out of consumer wallets every time they flip the switch. 

Now what would happen if you took each one of those lights and doubled or tripled the efficiency? Huge energy savings—and far fewer power plants. New energy saving lighting standards being phased in next year will shave more than $100 a year off household utility bills, cut electricity use by 30 power plants and slash carbon pollution equal to 17 million cars. Talk about reasons to screw in a better light bulb. 

And these energy savings and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions aren’t just pipe dreams, they’re based on real numbers. In a recent ground-breaking report on the global lighting industry, Lighting the Way, McKinsey & Company described the dramatic impacts of new efficient light bulbs on climate change this way:

Analysis using the GHG (greenhouse gas) abatement activities reveals that replacing current non energy-efficient light sources with energy-efficient light sources will provide substantial economic benefit while at the same time reducing CO2…. Replacing traditional lighting technology with energy-efficient technologies such as LED is therefore much easier and represents much sounder economics for reducing CO2 emissions than other CO2 reduction activities.  

Translation? Switching to energy efficient light bulbs is the fastest way to stop the planet’s relentless march to climate destruction. There simply is no more efficient way to stem the rising levels of global warming gases, period.

But light bulb experts are quick to point out people shouldn’t change bulbs just to save the planet; people should make the switch because it saves money. It's a classic two-fer, a no-brainer for anyone who wants to stretch the family budget. Thanks to new federal energy efficiency standards passed during the Bush Administration, manufacturers are required to make more efficient consumer lights, starting with 100-watt bulbs next year.

GE already makes an energy efficient halogen that meets these light output standards and uses nearly 30 percent less energy than the old incandescents now being phased out. GE's Allen says consumer could make their money back on the new bulbs within a year.

GE LED prototype bulbs undergo testing               Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Earlier this year, GE introduced a hybrid halogen/compact fluorescent that turns on and off instantly and lasts eight times as long as the old energy-hogging bulbs. Expect many more money-saving designs like these to come as bulb designs continue to proliferate and improve in terms of efficiency, durability and diversity of uses.

Take LEDs, for example, a technology the big bulb makers are pouring most of their resources into. Right now LEDs represent a small slice of the overall consumer market. But engineers like Gary Allen say thanks to the Haitz Law—the LED equivalent of the computer chip’s Moore’s law—there will be an exponential increase in LED performance every decade. That means LEDs are poised to rocket energy savings straight into the light bulb stratosphere.

Allen says he's ecstatic about the money and energy consumers will save by switching to LEDs. The way he sees it, we are now experiencing a new wave of lighting designs and technology advances that will do for consumers what fire pits did for the cave man. He expects LEDs will get ten times more cost efficient over the next decade.

Allen and other engineers say we are entering a lighting era of explosive growth and efficiency, so comparing the lights of yesterday with new bulbs hitting the market now is like comparing Pac Man to Playstation 3. “LEDs are like computers when they were first introduced. The prices will come down significantly.” That means savings and options for consumers will continue to go up.

These are exciting times for lighting technology gurus. Allen and his team's efforts will never get the recognition of the industry patron saint, Thomas Edison. But in some ways their contributions are even greater. They are not just giving society the gift of a better light, but a globally sustainable one that will be a critical weapon in the fight against climate change.

In a world where natural resources are under ever-increasing stress, a more efficient light bulb means not only greater savings, but a future we can all look forward to.