Cheaper, Longer-Lasting Lightbulbs Pose Industry Challenge More efficient lightbulbs are cheaper and longer-lasting than ever. But while that's good for consumers, it can be tough for an industry that's also facing shifting regulations.

Lighting Industry's Future Dims As Efficient LED Bulbs Take Over

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/782087163/782732981" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a revolution afoot in the lighting business. LED lightbulbs are replacing energy-hogging incandescent ones. It's good news for the environment. Using less energy reduces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But this revolution does come with a cost. NPR's Jeff Brady went to St. Marys, Pa., to visit a lightbulb factory that's shutting down.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The factory is 2 1/2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh, and it has produced lightbulbs for more than a century, much of that time under the Sylvania brand. But today, the factory produces only scrap metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING METAL)

BRADY: Sparks fly as a worker cuts and dismantles one of the production lines.

Jeff Anderson worked here for more than 20 years.

JEFF ANDERSON: And they are removing some of the equipment, cutting conveyors out of the ceiling.

BRADY: Is it kind of sad to see?

ANDERSON: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. I was the last one to run that machine that's over there that they're tearing apart.

BRADY: Anderson and about 175 others lost their jobs here when LEDVANCE, the plant owner, announced earlier this year it's shutting this facility down.

ANDERSON: This plant has a lot to do with my life. My mom and dad actually met in this plant.

BRADY: Anderson says wages were good for the region, around $50,000 a year with overtime. But LEDVANCE has to compete with overseas manufacturers that have cheaper labor costs.

The company had hoped to attract customers who want to buy American-made products. It produced this video showing a LEDVANCE employee with his daughter in a store lightbulb aisle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Daddy, did you help make these?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

BRADY: The employee featured in that ad also lost his job.

LEDVANCE head of government affairs Jennifer Dolan says consumers tend to see lightbulbs as a commodity, and they look for the cheapest price.

JENNIFER DOLAN: Unfortunately, when consumers have to spend money and everything else is getting more expensive, made in the U.S. kind of drops down on their list of priorities.

BRADY: Dolan says the company tried to keep the plant viable. Just a few years ago, LEDVANCE invested $10 million to begin producing the LED bulbs people want to buy. But this business is changing so fast that plan fell apart.

The research firm IHS Markit says retail prices for LED bulbs have decreased about 14% a year since 2011. On top of that, federal efficiency regulations are in flux. The Obama administration tried to dramatically expand efficiency requirements to more lightbulbs, but then the Trump administration reversed that, a position Dolan's company supports.

DOLAN: There's a lot of uncertainty in policy, a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace. Everything is just converging to make it very difficult in lighting.

BRADY: Industry analysts say this factory is not the first casualty and probably won't be the last.

There's another issue that doesn't require an analyst to figure out. Even residents in downtown St. Marys know.

JOHN DIPPOLD: You don't buy lightbulbs anymore. Once you buy them, you don't change them.

BRADY: That's John Dippold, who likes that the new LED bulbs can last a decade or more before they burn out. Nearby, Bob Friedl agrees.

BOB FRIEDL: It's a big savings as far as time and whatever. They're a little more expensive, but they sure last a long time. But your buddies don't have a job either.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING METAL)

BRADY: Back at the LEDVANCE factory, Jeff Anderson says he's filed for unemployment benefits and will take advantage of a retraining program.

ANDERSON: Right now, I'm looking into being a heavy-equipment operator.

BRADY: Anderson says he was planning to retire at 62, but because of the lighting revolution, he may have to work a few more years.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, St. Marys, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK SONG, "NEONLICHT")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.