Old-style light bulbs face a dark future after job cuts

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The Independent US

Almost 128 years after the company's founder, Thomas Edison, patented the electric light bulb, the world's largest industrial conglomerate has admitted the future looks dim for the old-style, energy-guzzling bulbs.

General Electric is taking the axe to its multi-billion dollar lighting business, announcing plans to close factories across North and South America and laying off more than 1,400 staff.

The deep cuts come in addition to a long-running restructuring effort that, it has become clear, failed to keep pace with the switch away from traditional incandescent bulbs in favour of energy efficient alternatives.

Energy conscious consumers now being joined by governments around the world, many of which are planning to legislate the traditional bulb out of existence. Australia has banned them, the UK has agreed that retailers will stop selling them within four years, and US politicians are set to vote on a plan to phase them out.

While profits from the ordinary light bulb could be burnt out within a decade, GE is pushing new fluorescent and LED replacements and even a high-efficiency version of the incandescent bulb. It is not enough to eliminate the need for further job cuts, the company said.

"The restructuring we are proposing, while very difficult due to the impact on employees, would be one of the most important things we've done in the 100-plus year history of GE's lighting business," said Jim Campbell, president of GE's consumer division.

"Global market demand for the most common household lighting product – the incandescent bulb – has dramatically declined over the past five years, and is accelerating due to new efficiency standards and technology advancements."

Six of GE's 25 lighting factories in the US are to close, along with the company's last remaining factory in Brazil, it was announced last night. A year ago, GE said it was shutting a factory in Leicester in the UK, with the loss of 370 jobs.

The symbolism of GE's actions is all the more powerful because it was Thomas Edison who invented the first functioning incandescent light bulb in 1879, passing a current through a carbon filament and, at a stroke, turning his Edison Electric Light Company into one of the most powerful forces in American capitalism. Modern day GE still looks to Edison as its inspiration, even though diverse businesses in finance, medical technology and aircraft engines dwarf the old lighting business.

GE says it has invested $200m (£100m) in the past four years on alternative lighting technologies, and says that its compact fluorescent bulbs offer energy savings of 70 per cent and last 10 times longer than old bulbs.

Last month, it was announced that all high-energy light bulbs will be removed from sale in Britain within four years under a voluntary deal between the Government and major retailers. Millions of 100-watt bulbs will be taken off the shelves by January 2009, and all incandescent lights phased out by 2011.

Unveiling the initiative at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said the move would save five million tonnes of CO2 per year from 2011.