Lighting Industry's Future Dims As Efficient LED Bulbs Take Over

Nov 25, 2019
Originally published on November 26, 2019 7:29 am

A revolution is upsetting the lighting business as LED lightbulbs replace energy-hogging incandescent ones. This is good news for consumers and the environment; using less energy reduces the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But this shift comes with a cost, exemplified by a century-old lightbulb factory in St. Marys, Pa., that is the latest to shut down.

For much of its long history the LEDVANCE facility, 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, produced lightbulbs under the Sylvania brand. Now all it produces is scrap metal.

Jeff Anderson worked at the plant for more than 20 years. He and about 175 others lost their jobs when LEDVANCE announced the closure last April.

Jeff Anderson worked at the LEDVANCE lightbulb factory in St. Marys for more than 20 years. He is considering a career change to heavy equipment operator.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Recently Anderson watched sparks fly as a worker cut and dismantled one of the lightbulb production lines.

"I was the last one to run that machine that's over there, that they are tearing apart," says Anderson, occasionally appearing to choke up as he described what is happening to his former workplace. "This plant has a lot to do with my life. My mom and dad actually met in this plant."

His father began working here after returning from Vietnam, and his mother started a few years later. "They ended up engaged and married," he says, "and when she got pregnant with me she quit here and stayed at home."

Parts of glass lightbulbs remain in the production lines. About 175 workers were affected when the plant shut down.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Anderson says LEDVANCE wages were good for the region, around $50,000 a year with overtime. But the company competes with overseas manufacturers that have cheaper labor costs.

LEDVANCE had hoped to attract customers who want to buy American-made products. It produced a video called "Daddy's Light Bulbs" showing a LEDVANCE employee with his daughter in a store lightbulb aisle. She asks, "Daddy, did you help make these?" He proudly answers, "Yes."

The employee featured in that ad also lost his job.

You don't buy lightbulbs anymore. Once you buy them, you don't change them. - John Dippold, resident of St. Marys

"Unfortunately, when consumers have to spend money and everything else is getting more expensive, 'Made in the U.S.' kind of drops down on their list of priorities," says Jennifer Dolan, head of government affairs for LEDVANCE.

Dolan says the company tried to keep the plant viable. Just a few years ago LEDVANCE invested $10 million to begin producing the LED bulbs people want to buy. But the lighting business is changing so fast, that plan fell apart. A big reason is falling prices.

"We have seen, on a global scale, the prices of LED lamps have decreased by approximately 14% per year over the last six years," says Pal Karlsen, lighting technology research analyst at IHS Markit.

On top of that, federal efficiency regulations are in flux. The Obama administration tried to dramatically expand efficiency requirements to more lightbulbs. But then the Trump administration reversed that, a position Dolan's company supports.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in policy. There's a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace. Everything is just converging to make it very difficult in lighting," says Dolan.

Just a few cars remain in the parking lot at the LEDVANCE factory. The company plans to decommission the plant by next summer.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Industry analysts say this factory is not the first casualty of the LED revolution and probably won't be the last.

And there's another issue that doesn't require an analyst to figure out: Companies are selling fewer lightbulbs because LEDs can last a decade or longer before they burn out.

"You don't buy lightbulbs anymore. Once you buy them, you don't change them," says John Dippold, of St. Marys, whose mother started working at the plant in 1917.

Another local resident, Bob Friedl, agrees these newest lightbulbs pose a double-edged sword. "They're a little more expensive but they sure last a long time," he says. "But your buddies don't have a job either."

LEDVANCE plans to finish decommissioning the factory next summer. Anderson says he has filed for unemployment benefits and will take advantage of a retraining program.

He is thinking about becoming a heavy equipment operator, perhaps for a construction company. He was planning to retire at 62, he says, but because of the lighting revolution he may have to work a few more years.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a revolution afoot in the lighting business. LED lightbulbs are replacing energy-hogging incandescent ones. It's good news for the environment. Using less energy reduces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But this revolution does come with a cost. NPR's Jeff Brady went to St. Marys, Pa., to visit a lightbulb factory that's shutting down.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The factory is 2 1/2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh, and it has produced lightbulbs for more than a century, much of that time under the Sylvania brand. But today, the factory produces only scrap metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING METAL)

BRADY: Sparks fly as a worker cuts and dismantles one of the production lines.

Jeff Anderson worked here for more than 20 years.

JEFF ANDERSON: And they are removing some of the equipment, cutting conveyors out of the ceiling.

BRADY: Is it kind of sad to see?

ANDERSON: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. I was the last one to run that machine that's over there that they're tearing apart.

BRADY: Anderson and about 175 others lost their jobs here when LEDVANCE, the plant owner, announced earlier this year it's shutting this facility down.

ANDERSON: This plant has a lot to do with my life. My mom and dad actually met in this plant.

BRADY: Anderson says wages were good for the region, around $50,000 a year with overtime. But LEDVANCE has to compete with overseas manufacturers that have cheaper labor costs.

The company had hoped to attract customers who want to buy American-made products. It produced this video showing a LEDVANCE employee with his daughter in a store lightbulb aisle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Daddy, did you help make these?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

BRADY: The employee featured in that ad also lost his job.

LEDVANCE head of government affairs Jennifer Dolan says consumers tend to see lightbulbs as a commodity, and they look for the cheapest price.

JENNIFER DOLAN: Unfortunately, when consumers have to spend money and everything else is getting more expensive, made in the U.S. kind of drops down on their list of priorities.

BRADY: Dolan says the company tried to keep the plant viable. Just a few years ago, LEDVANCE invested $10 million to begin producing the LED bulbs people want to buy. But this business is changing so fast that plan fell apart.

The research firm IHS Markit says retail prices for LED bulbs have decreased about 14% a year since 2011. On top of that, federal efficiency regulations are in flux. The Obama administration tried to dramatically expand efficiency requirements to more lightbulbs, but then the Trump administration reversed that, a position Dolan's company supports.

DOLAN: There's a lot of uncertainty in policy, a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace. Everything is just converging to make it very difficult in lighting.

BRADY: Industry analysts say this factory is not the first casualty and probably won't be the last.

There's another issue that doesn't require an analyst to figure out. Even residents in downtown St. Marys know.

JOHN DIPPOLD: You don't buy lightbulbs anymore. Once you buy them, you don't change them.

BRADY: That's John Dippold, who likes that the new LED bulbs can last a decade or more before they burn out. Nearby, Bob Friedl agrees.

BOB FRIEDL: It's a big savings as far as time and whatever. They're a little more expensive, but they sure last a long time. But your buddies don't have a job either.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING METAL)

BRADY: Back at the LEDVANCE factory, Jeff Anderson says he's filed for unemployment benefits and will take advantage of a retraining program.

ANDERSON: Right now, I'm looking into being a heavy-equipment operator.

BRADY: Anderson says he was planning to retire at 62, but because of the lighting revolution, he may have to work a few more years.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, St. Marys, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK SONG, "NEONLICHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.