Do Fluorescent Bulbs Light the Way to the Future?

A compact fluorescent light bulb
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Compact fluorescent light bulbs save consumers money — and their use can help slow global warming. So why haven't they come into widespread use yet?

A compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) is a tiny version of the long overhead lights in your office. It's twisted into a spiral. The CFL fits into the same fixtures where you use regular incandescent bulbs. The CFLs cost more, but they use about one-third of the electricity of the incandescent bulbs.

Utilities and local governments have tried giving them away to promote switching over to CFLs.

Wal-Mart hopes to more than double its sales of them in 2007.

"We are committed to selling 100 million CFL bulbs this year," said Andy Rubin, Wal-Mart vice president for sustainability.

He said one CFL should last five years, and the customer's electric bills should be 50 cents to 75 cents lower each month as a result of switching from one standard bulb to one compact fluorescent bulb.

If the nation's largest retailer were to meet its goal of selling 100 million CFL bulbs, the aggregate electric bill savings would be $3 billion, according to Rubin.

When Wal-Mart itself switched to CFLs in its ceiling-fan-lights displays, it saved $8 million a year.

"There is a real desire right now for action," Rubin said. By buying CFLs, customers know they are helping curb greenhouse gases. "Everyone can do this."

Brian Huyser, creator of onebillionbulbs.com, believes in that message so much that he started a Web site preaching the gospel of CFLs.

The inspiration was a Discovery Channel documentary on global warming. The narrator said, "If each family switched out one bulb, it would be the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road."

"I went to bed that night intrigued," Huyser said. The next morning, he decided to start onebillionbulbs.com. "After all, what could be easier than changing a light bulb?"

But Randall Stross's experience with CFLs may demonstrate one of the hurdles. Stross, author of The Wizard of Menlo Park, writes about how Americans clung to their gas lights at first, even though they were impressed with the quality of Thomas Edison's electric lights.

In the case of CFLs at his own house, Stross finds their light quality a bit lacking — and he's not the only one. As an experiment, he put one in the hall and didn't tell anyone.

After a month, his son asked, "Would you please fix the light in the hall?"

"This seems like an ethereal, intangible quality, and one that can't be weighed in the same balance of the very fate of the planet," Stross said. "But we have always taken the quality of light very seriously."

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