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Light bulb factory closes; End of era for U.S. means more jobs overseas

The last major U.S. factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs will soon be closing. When it does, the remaining 200 workers at the Winchester, Va., plant, about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., will lose their jobs, marking a small, sad exit for a product that began with Thomas Alva Edison's innovations in the 1870s.

"Retailers tell me people ask for 'Made in the USA' " Yan said. "I tell them the product will cost 45 to 50 cents more. They say people will pay for it."

Sales of the CFLs began slowly, but they spiked in 2006 and 2007, when federal and state government efforts promoted their use.

The Energy Department teamed with Disney to develop a public service announcement based on the Disney Pixar film "Ratatouille" to encourage the adoption of technologies such as CFLs. It was shown on CNN, HGTV and the Food Network.

Lawmakers in California and Nevada drafted legislation calling for higher efficiency standards for light bulbs. And in December 2007, Congress passed its new energy standards.

GE balked at the standards at first, knowing that they could impact their U.S. manufacturing. But the company also saw that with restrictions gaining momentum in more states and other countries, some kind of legislation was unavoidable. They decided to support the bill as long as it didn't amount to a ban on traditional incandescents, but instead simply set energy standards.

"We obviously pointed out to legislators that the impact of an outright ban would be an elimination of some manufacturing operations," said Earl Jones, senior counsel in government relations and regulatory compliance at the company. "But it was inevitable that some kind of legislation would be coming to the U.S."

As expected, the new standards hurt the business in traditional incandescents.

The company developed a plan to see what it would take to retrofit a plant that makes traditional incandescents into one that makes CFLs. Even with a $40 million investment and automation, the disparity in wages and other factors made it uneconomical. The new plant's CFLs would have cost about 50 percent more than those from China, GE officials said.

The company also makes halogen light bulbs, which are an innovative type of incandescent, and Sylvania is transforming its incandescent light bulb factory in St. Marys, Pa. to halogen as well.

But the era of traditional incandescents built in the United States was coming to an end.

In announcing the plant closure here, GE said in a news release that "a variety of energy regulations," including those in the United States, "will soon make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester Plant obsolete."

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