WINCHESTER, Va. —The last major GE factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs in the United States is closing this month, marking a small, sad exit for a product and company that can trace their roots to Thomas Alva Edison's innovations in the 1870s.
The remaining 200 workers at the plant here will lose their jobs.
"Now what're we going to do?" said Toby Savolainen, 49, who like many others worked for decades at the factory, making bulbs now deemed wasteful.
During the recession, political and business leaders have held out the promise that American advances, particularly in green technology, might stem the decades-long decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. But as the lighting industry shows, even when the government pushes companies toward environmental innovations and Americans come up with them, the manufacture of the next-generation technology can still end up overseas.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
What made the plant here vulnerable is, in part, a 2007 energy conservation measure passed by Congress that set standards essentially banning ordinary incandescents by 2014. The law will force millions of American households to switch to more-efficient bulbs.
The resulting savings in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to be immense. But the move also had unintended consequences.
Rather than setting off a boom in the U.S. manufacture of replacement lights, the leading replacement lights are compact fluorescents, or CFLs, which are made almost entirely overseas, mostly in China.
Consisting of glass tubes twisted into a spiral, they require more hand labor, which is cheaper there. So though they were first developed by American engineers in the 1970s, none of the major brands make CFLs in the United States.
"Everybody's jumping on the green bandwagon," said Pat Doyle, 54, who has worked at the plant for 26 years. But "we've been sold out. First sold out by the government. Then sold out by GE."
Doyle was speaking after a shift last month surrounded by several co-workers around a picnic table near the punch clock. Many of the workers have been at the plant for decades, and most appeared to be in their 40s and 50s. Several worried aloud about finding another job.
"When you're 50 years old, no one wants you," Savolainen said. It was meant half in jest, but some of the men nod grimly.
If there is a green bandwagon, as Doyle says, much of the Obama administration is on board. As a means of creating U.S. jobs, the administration has been promoting the nation's "green economy" — solar power, electric cars, wind turbines — with the idea that U.S. innovations in those fields may translate into U.S. factories. President Obama said last month that he expects the government's commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012, one step in a larger journey planned to restore U.S. manufacturing.
But officials are working against a daunting trend. Under the pressures of globalization, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has been shrinking for decades, from 19.5 million in 1979 to 11.6 million this year, a decline of 40 percent.
At textile mills in North Carolina, at auto parts plants in Ohio, at other assorted manufacturing plants around the country, the closures have pushed workers out, often leaving them to face an onslaught of personal defeats: lower wages, community college retraining and unemployment checks.
In Obama's vision, the nation's mastery of new technology will create American manufacturing jobs.
But a closer look at the lighting industry reveals that isn't going to be easy.
At one time, the United States was ahead of the game in CFLs.
Following the 1973 energy crisis, a GE engineer named Ed Hammer and others at the company's famed Nela Park research laboratories were tinkering with different methods of saving electricity with fluorescent lights.
In a standard incandescent bulb, in which the filament is electrified until it glows, only about 10 percent of the electricity is transformed into light; the rest generates heat as a side effect. A typical fluorescent uses about 75 percent less electricity than an incandescent to produce the same amount of light.
The trouble facing Hammer was that fluorescents are most efficient in long tubes. But long, linear tubes don't fit into the same lamp fixtures that the standard incandescent bulbs do.
Working with a team of talented glass blowers, though, Hammer twisted the tubes into a spiral. The new lamps had length, but were also more compact.
"I knew it was a good lamp design," he recalled recently. In retrospect, in fact, it was a key innovation. The Smithsonian houses Hammer's original spiral CFL prototype.
At the time, however, the design had one big problem. Bending all that glass into the required shape was slow and required lots of manual labor.
"I used to say you would need 40,000 glass blowers to make the parts," Hammer said. "Without automation, it was economically unfeasible. "
The company decided to make investments in other types of lighting then being developed.
Years passed. The next major innovator to try his hand at CFLs was Ellis Yan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, who had started his own lighting business in China and then in the early '90s turned his attention to the possibilities of CFLs.
To make CFLs, he had workers in China sit beside furnaces and bend the glass by hand. Even with the low wages there, the first attempts were expensive, clunky and flickered when turned on, he said. But he persisted.
"No one else wanted to make the big investment for the next generation of technology," Yan said.
The business prospered and Yan's factories in China employed as many as 14,000. With new automation techniques, Yan is seeking to cut the number of his employees in China, where wages are rising, to 5,000 by year's end.
Today, about a quarter of the lights sold in the United States are CFLs, according to NEMA, an industry association. Of those, Yan says, he manufactures more than half.
Someday soon, Yan says, he hopes to build a U.S. factory, though he so far has been unable to secure $12.5 million in government funding for the project.
Manufacturing in the United States would add 10 percent or more to the cost of building a standard CFL, he said, but retailers have indicated that there is a demand for products manufactured domestically.
"Retailers tell me people ask for 'Made in the USA' " Yan said. "I tell them the product will cost 45 to 50 cents more. They say people will pay for it."