Incandescent light bulbs may soon look more at home in the Smithsonian than our light fixtures. Major companies like General Electric have dedicated the last few years to switching over to eco-friendly compact florescent bulbs, which use 75 percent less energy while giving as much light as incandescent light bulbs. And for a technology that started in the 1870s with Thomas Edison’s invention, this is the end of an era.
But as the Washington Post reports, one unintended consequence is the contribution it makes to the “continuing erosion” of U.S. manufacturing. As companies transition over to making CFLs, local plants close and jobs are moved out of the country. The cost of making CFLs and other new technologies is much cheaper abroad. As the Post reports, CFLs must be twisted into a spiral, a task which requires more manual labor. This is cheaper in China.
Many of the innovations for greener light bulbs originated in the United States. The CFL was invented by GE engineer Ed Hammer in the 1970s after the energy crisis. Then Ellis Yan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, streamlined their production. Yan brought their assembly back to China, where labor was cheaper. As Yan explain to the Post, he would consider bringing his production to the United States even though it would add 10 percent to the cost of doing business. This is due to the fact that consumers have expressed a desire for goods made in America.
This is cold comfort for the workers at GE’s Winchester, Va., plant. Workers at the plant, where jobs have paid as much as $30 an hour, worry that they will be unable to find new positions. Many express grievances with the government. Despite promises that the move to green technologies would result in more manufacturing jobs, the government has allowed most of the contracts to go overseas. In 2007, the government passed legislation that would essentially ban incandescent light bulbs by 2014 while greatly decreasing domestic energy costs and greenhouse gases. But when the cost of creating the CFLs proved cheaper abroad, replacement positions were not available.
President Obama addressed this issue in a speech Aug. 16. As reported by the Post, Obama said, "When new batteries to store solar power come off the line, I want to see printed on the side, 'Made in America.' When new technologies are developed and new industries are formed, I want them made right here in America. That's what we're fighting for." But for the workers in Winchester, Obama’s wishes may come too late.
For further reading: