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Posted July 24, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Fade to black: GE plans to close local plant

General Electric plans to close
General Electric plans to close the Winchester lamp plant by the end of July 2010, putting more than 200 employees out of a job. Dennis Grundman/Daily

New lighting efficiency standards will make factory’s products obsolete, company says

By James Heffernan — jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER — Unless its 200-plus workers can come up with some bright ideas to save it, the lights will go out at General Electric’s Winchester lamp plant next summer.

Employees at the plant, which makes a variety of traditional household incandescent light bulbs, were informed Thursday of the company’s intent to close the facility by the end of July 2010.

In a press release from GE’s Consumer & Industrial Division, the company said the move is being considered because of new lighting efficiency standards in the U.S. and other countries that will soon make the plant’s products obsolete.

Under the energy bill passed by Congress in December 2007, incandescent bulbs will be phased out over the next 12 years, starting with 100-watt bulbs in 2012. By that time, all light bulbs will be required to use 25 percent less energy.

“Even without the new regulations, the market for traditional household incandescent light bulbs has declined by half over the past five years, creating considerable overcapacity, rising costs and inefficiencies across our manufacturing system,” Ron Wilson, general manager of GE North America Lighting Manufacturing, states in the press release.

Plant manager Joseph Cenin added that the proposed action is not a reflection on the local work force, but rather about “making changes that are imperative to GE Lighting’s ability to compete for the long term.”

The closing is subject to a process called “idea generation,” in which employees will have an opportunity to offer cost-saving alternatives, the company said. A final decision will be made after the talks are completed within 60 days.

If the closing goes forward, it will affect 193 hourly and 10 salaried employees, the company said.

Cenin said GE considered retrofitting the Winchester lamp plant to produce more energy-efficient bulbs, such as compact fluorescent lamps, but ultimately the move didn’t make sense.

Retrofitting would require a significant investment — $40 million, according to one study, added Debbie Wexler, communications manager for GE Consumer & Industrial.

“Then we would have to sell the products at a higher cost,” which would put GE at a disadvantage in the marketplace, she said.

CFLs use about a third of the energy of traditional incandescent bulbs, last up to 10 times longer and save $30 or more in energy costs over their lifetime, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most CFLs are currently being manufactured in Asia.

Patrick Barker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission, said his office has heard whispers about the Winchester plant’s future for nearly two years, but was only informed of GE’s intent to close it on Thursday.

“Clearly we were hoping for a more desirable outcome,” he said. “But plants closing is an economic reality.”

The Winchester plant opened in 1975, according to EDC records.

Displaced workers would be eligible for GE’s severance package, which includes lump-sum payments, early retirement options and pension disbursements, based on their years of service. All employees would continue to receive company medical and dental coverage as well as life insurance coverage for one year from the date of termination. Education and job training assistance programs also are available.

Cenin said his employees’ average length of service is “well over” 25 years.

“I think they all expected it, but they were hoping to get some more time,” he said. “It’s a difficult piece of news to hear.”

Cenin indicated that the 60-day brainstorming period is strictly a formality.

“I think we’ll get some suggestions, but the employees, they’ve gone through this process before,” he said. “I think they’ll come to realize the gap is very large … and that they have limited options.”

Barker said if the company goes ahead with the decision to close, the EDC’s focus will be getting employees back to work as soon as possible.

“We will work with GE as closely as they will allow us … to make sure that the sun rises once again in a favorable economic light.”

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