Government-Industry Partnerships for electronic ballasts lighting systems


Fluorescent lights require ballasts that help the lamps to start and then control the current flowing through the lamp; electromagnetic ballasts were the conventional ballast technology in the 1960s. Solid state electronic ballasts, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, improve the energy efficiency of fluorescent lights by 15% to 30%, but initially failed to gain market support due to poor performance, reliability and high cost. Following a coordinated programme of technology support by the U.S. government, electronic ballasts captured a significant market share – rising from negligible production in 1988 to more than 30 million units produced and a 30% market share within 8 years.

Electronic Ballasts Graph

First-generation electronic ballasts were developed and marketed on a small scale in the late 1960s, but these products suffered from performance and reliability problems as well as high cost. Major ballast manufacturers showed little interest in perfecting electronic ballasts, since they had much invested in magnetic ballast production, and the lighting industry in general was satisfied with existing technology.

In 1976, the US Department of Energy (DOE) established a lighting research program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) to accelerate the development and commercialisation of energy-efficient lighting technologies and initiated a joint private-public research programme focused specifically upon the development of electronic ballasts. Following a competitive tendering process, the LBL selected two small independent lighting manufacturers (IOTA Engineering and Stevens Electronics) who quickly developed prototypes that exhibited up to 25% electricity savings, but suffered from reliability problems (Geller et al, 1987).

Following further improvements, the LBL led a field test and evaluation program that confirmed a 25% reduction in energy use – however, the field tests uncovered further design flaws and a significant number of the prototype ballasts failed prematurely. After further improvements, a small number of larger manufacturers began to show an interest in electronic ballasts, and Beatrice Foods, a newcomer to the ballast industry, bought IOTA’s concept and formed a dedicated division within the company to develop and produce the new electronic ballasts. The Stevens design was bought by Luminoptics, a company established to manufacture and market the ballasts.

In 1979, the DOE co-funded another electronic ballast demonstration project with the Veterans Administration. This project involved the successful installation of more than 400 dimmable ballasts in a medical centre in California, following which it became the first federal agency to specify the use of electronic ballasts.

The LBL continued to test the performance and reliability of the electronic ballasts and to disseminate the results of this research and to publicise the benefits of the new technology. It also worked closely with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop voluntary performance standards. In a similar vein, the LBL served as an intermediary between ballast designers and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in helping to establish standards to ensure that electronic ballasts were compatible with fluorescent lamps and fixtures.

The major ballast manufacturers, including Universal, Advanced Transformer and GE were initially uninterested in and even hostile to the concept of electronic ballasts. However, in the mid 1980s they became convinced of the technical and commercial viability of electronic ballasts and began production and in some cases purchased the smaller independent companies that had developed the new technology.

The LBL discontinued its technical support and market development efforts in 1984, having spent a total of US$2.7 million on electronic ballasts over a nine-year period, at which point the performance, reliability and cost of the new technology had been proven. The economic benefits of this public support, reflecting increased revenues to ballast manufacturers and the value of energy saved during the lifetime of electronic ballasts is estimated at more than US$5.6 billion.


  • Public support played a major role in the development of electronic ballasts in the U.S. Most of that support was focused upon joint industry-government support for R&D, field testing and demonstration projects, which were crucial to addressing reliability, performance and cost issues.
  • Small, independent companies were the only businesses willing to invest in the development of the first reliable commercial prototypes. Whereas the larger firms, with existing sunk investments in the incumbent technologies were reluctant to invest in the new technology. It wasn’t until the new technology was proven that the larger firms entered the market – in many cases buying out the original designs developed and proven by the smaller firms.
  • The joint public-private field tests and demonstrations were crucial to solving the outstanding design issues and demonstrating reliability – thereby winning commercial confidence.
  • The US government also provided important niche markets by specifying the use of electronic ballasts in selected federal facilities and played an important role in publicizing the benefits of the new technology.
  • Once the reliability, performance and cost issues had been addressed and the larger players entered the market, the strong business case behind the use of electronic ballasts and the credibility given to the new technology by its use in federal facilities, spurred consumer uptake of the new technology.

[1] Geller, H. & McGaraghan, S. (1998) ‘Successful government-industry partnership: the US Department of Energy’s role in advancing energy-efficient technologies’, Energy Policy, 26(3): 167-177.


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