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.
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