The price of fluorescent light bulbs is on the way up.
And as with many economic situations these days, at least part of the reason lies in China.
The Chinese have reduced their exports of rare earth elements, while global demand for them is soaring.
Result: rising prices for products, including fluorescent light bulbs, that use the exotically named elements.
Despite their categorization, rare earth metals are not rare, the U.S. Department of Energy said. But though they are found in many countries — including the U.S., Canada and Australia — China produces 97 percent of the world's rare earth elements, a key component in many advanced technologies.
Rare earth elements are used in computer memory systems, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cellphones, car catalytic converters, magnets — and fluorescent lighting.
Rare earth elements contain phosphors, substances that radiate visible light when energized. In a fluorescent bulb, electricity excites mercury vapor inside a tube, causing it to emit ultraviolet rays. The ultraviolet radiation in turn excites the phosphor compound coating the inside of the tube to produce visible light.
For instance, manufacturer Osram Sylvania told dealers that it was raising the previously announced 10 percent price increase effective Sept. 1 on all its fluorescent lamps to an overall average increase of 25 percent, which will go into effect Aug. 1.
Price increases will vary by the specific type of fluorescent product, Osram Sylvania said, but the company said it intends to continue raising prices monthly until the global rare earth oxide market stabilizes.
And General Electric said it would raise its fluorescent bulb prices 5 percent on Aug. 1.
How the tightening of the international rare earth market will affect the average consumer is not clear yet.
"It is hard to say about potential long-term impacts until it becomes clear if this is or is not a temporary price blip," said Al Christopher, director of the state's Energy Division with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
Lighting supplier Satco Products Inc. of Brentwood, N.Y., told distributors that it "can no longer support any previously quoted job pricing or ongoing contract pricing" for four common types of fluorescent bulbs.
Satco said the cost of tri-phosphorous coatings used in the manufacturing of fluorescent and compact fluorescent lamps has increased nearly 600 percent during the past four months.
Fluorescent bulbs can be five to 10 times — or higher — pricier than comparable incandescent bulbs, but the cost-effective fluorescents use only a quarter of the energy of standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.
"We've pretty much gone exclusively to them," said Brian J. Ohlinger, Virginia Commonwealth University's associate vice president for facilities management. "With the fluorescents, we're buying a lot fewer because they last so much longer" compared with incandescent lights.
The cost of the bulb is less important than the cost of replacing burned-out lights, Ohlinger said, and the cost of the energy to run them.
"When you've got a $7.5 million (annual) electric bill," he said, "you're looking at all those alternatives."
This month, China said it was relaxing export curbs for rare earth elements, returning to near-2010 levels, but some of the Asian country's trading partners said the change did not ensure stable supplies.
In Washington, the U.S. Trade Representative's office said China was not helpful because Beijing was expanding the scope of products covered by its export quota, which for 2011 represented a 40 percent decrease from 2009.
Rare earth elements also are necessary for the production of green technologies, such as electric and hybrid vehicle motors, and wind turbines, as well as energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs.
"The bigger story is how the control of these rare earth elements collides with our move toward clean energy," said Christopher J. Singleton, managing director of Kanawha Capital Management LLC in Henrico County.
Although the United States is seeking alternative sources for rare earths, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said it might take up to 15 years before the U.S. is able to rebuild its own sourced rare earth supply chain.
"As these prices of rare earth elements have soared," said research analyst Tim Hayes with Davenport and Co. LLC in Richmond, "it will eventually lead to more exploration in other parts of the world, to mine and produce the rare earth elements."
And that could drive prices down again, he said.
In the beginning — or at least from 1878 to 1880 — Thomas Edison labored to create better, more efficient light. At the time, incandescent lamps were too bright for small spaces. They use electricity to heat the filament, or a thin strip of metal, until it glows. Edison is said to have tested thousands of theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp.
"The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments," Edison wrote. "I was never myself discouraged or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates."
Modern researchers likely can relate to the plight of Edison and his associates as they tackle the task of improving alternatives to the incandescent bulbs Americans have used since the 19th century.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, lighting accounts for 15 percent of the average electricity bill. Upgrading 15 traditional incandescent bulbs in your home with energy-saving bulbs could save about $50 a year. But the alternatives can be overwhelming — and even with all the choices out there, they still leave a lot to be desired aesthetically.
Best known are the curly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) introduced a few years ago. Small versions of the long, tubular fluorescent bulbs often used in kitchens and offices, they're said to use about one-fourth the energy of incandescent bulbs and last 10 times longer.
"CFLs have really evolved over the past few years," said celebrity designer and author Cortney Novogratz, who along with her husband, Robert, stars in the new HGTV show Home by Novogratz. There are now specific models for indoor and outdoor use as well as three-way switches and diverse styles, she said. Novogratz points to dimmable switches, which use even less energy and create a soft glow similar to incandescent bulbs, and soft-white CFLs, which give off a warmer, more intimate light than a typical fluorescent.
You're also likely to see LED (light-emitting diode) and halogen incandescent bulbs on store shelves. LEDs can save the most energy but are also the most expensive, with some bulbs costing as much as $50 each. Halogen incandescents are the least expensive alternative but consume more energy than LEDs and CFLs.
Aesthetics aside, the issue has also become politically divisive. Recently, state Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to repeal the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The act requires incandescent bulbs to be 25 percent more efficient by 2012, effectively phasing them out.
Barton and others maintain that the guidelines amount to a government overreach. On July 15, undeterred by the defeat of the repeal, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, introduced an amendment, the 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations Act, which passed in the House. It denies funding to the Department of Energy for the implementation of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.
As the debate continues, consumers are left to decide if and when to make the switch. Despite innovations such as coverings that make curly bulbs look more like incandescents, a number of people are attempting to circumvent the new standards by stockpiling incandescent bulbs.
Diana Rodriguez of Alexandria, Va., confessed that she has set aside a cache of incandescent bulbs.
"I dread when they won't be available anymore," Rodriguez wrote via email. "My husband started putting the CFL bulbs in our overhead lights a few years ago because they last longer, but I just hate them. I have tried to adjust, but it is just not the same. I know that sounds terrible because they are not good for the environment, but the quality of the light is so much different."
Rodriguez also says she has difficulty reading in a room that isn't bright enough. "I love the brightness and clarity of the incandescent bulbs," she said. "I know it is an inevitable thing at this point, but since they are going away, I want to save some for 'old times' sake.
Rachel Rothman, Consumer Electronics and Engineering Senior Test Engineer at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, said the CFLs and LEDs available today have better output, reliability, adjustability, efficiency and ease of use than those tested in 2008 - and prices continue to drop.
"Many of the old concerns of light patterns and off-lighting are things of the past," Rothman said. "The top bulb in our last test, which was preferred by testers to the incandescent, is the Satco Energy Saving Mini Spiral Bulb 13W, and it is still a great choice."
Rothman also recommends looking for Energy Star-rated products, the government designation for energy-efficient products.
"There are roughly 4 billion light bulb sockets in the U.S., and more than 75 percent still use standard incandescent bulbs," Rothman said. "The new CFL light bulbs will save from 25 percent to 75 percent in energy costs, compared to incandescent bulbs. With new EISA standards, U.S. households could save nearly $6 billion dollars in 2015 alone."
The words of Edison are likely as illuminating now as they were in his day.
"We are striking it big in the electric light, better than my vivid imagination first conceived," Edison wrote. "Where this thing is going to stop Lord only knows."
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