By Michael Gurton
In September, General Electric, with its ties to American inventor and lightbulb luminary Thomas Edison, closed its last major incandescent light factory, laying off more than 200 workers. The shuttering wasn’t the result of the economic downturn, but was due to congressionally-mandated changes in efficiency standards that have increased the adoption of new forms of lighting, such as the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).
The blame for the shuttering of this factory lies with GE, as many of the new forms of lighting that have gained market share in the wake of Congress’s mandate were initially developed, but not commercialized, at GE. These new forms of lighting will transform Oregon’s homes, street and businesses and could serve as a boon to local manufacturers.
In 2007, Congress passed a bill banning Edison’s incandescent bulb by 2014, setting the stage for the growth of longer-lasting and more energy-efficient, spiral-shaped CFL. CFLs -- developed by a research lab at GE in the 1970s, but never produced by the company -- are more expensive than incandescent lights because the glass lamps are blown and shaped by hand, mostly by Chinese laborers. The sales growth of these lights has been swift. According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade association for lighting manufacturers, one in five bulbs bought in the US are CFLs.
Another GE lighting innovation, the light emitting diode (LED), produces a very high-intensity light with low energy use. These lights, used for many years in digital watches, have a small diode instead of a filament that is illuminated by electrons passing through a semiconductor chip. Unlike the CFL, LEDs can’t produce enough light for a whole room or work space but their long lifespan are ideal for industrial uses such as outdoor signs, traffic lights, bike lights and streetlights.
According to Helen Vydra Roy, editor-in-chief of online publication New Streetlights, LED lighting holds great promise for US-based manufacturers. “The major lighting companies like GE and Philips were not focused on roadway LEDs.” This strategy, she states, “has allowed smaller, US-based players to move to the forefront.” Vydra Roy makes the caveat that while these companies are US-based, the chips in the LEDs are manufactured in Asia.
Portland General Electric is currently spearheading several pilots with local municipalities to test the impact of LED streetlights. Even though PGE’s self-funded pilot is not beholden to federal stimulus funding provisions that the lights must be assembled in the US, it could serve to jumpstart adoption of US-assembled LEDs. And at least one Oregon company is leaping at the opportunity.
Tucked in a non-descript Tualatin industrial park sits The Light Edge, a 10-year-old lighting manufacturer that got its start developing high-output fluorescent lights which are now installed in factories and warehouses throughout the world.
Over the last two years, the company has created several LED products, including a streetlight that is currently used in many municipal pilots, such as PGE’s, throughout the Pacific Northwest. David Gerton, company founder and president, sees the company’s LEDs, which are price-competitive with both American competitors such as Cree and Acuity and Netherlands-based powerhouse Philips, as a future growth opportunity that could put his company ahead of the curve.
While past missteps may have contributed to America losing its manufacturing might, there are companies, even in our own backyard, who are still on the cutting-edge of innovation and are seizing on the opportunities that come along with change.
Michael Gurton is the Director of MarketLink, a service of the Oregon Microenterprise Network that provides microenterprises and second-stage companies throughout Oregon with no-cost market research. The Light Edge is a non-paying client of his.