Do Fluorescent Bulbs Light the Way to the Future? 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?
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Do Fluorescent Bulbs Light the Way to the Future?

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Do Fluorescent Bulbs Light the Way to the Future?

Do Fluorescent Bulbs Light the Way to the Future?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

For the compact fluorescent light bulb, this could be the moment to shine. The CFL, as it's known for short, is a tiny version of the long overhead lights in your office. It's twisted into a spiral. The CFL fits in the same fixtures where you use regular incandescent bulbs. CFLs cost more, but they use about a quarter of the electricity of the incandescent bulbs. That's good for the environment and good for your electric bill, but they haven't come into widespread use yet.

So in the last few months, there has been more and more promotion of them. Utilities and local governments have been giving them away. A California lawmaker announced that he wants to ban conventional incandescent bulbs. And the CFL's biggest retail booster, Wal-Mart, wants to more than double its sales of them this year.

Andy Rubin is vice president for sustainability at Wal-Mart and joins us from Bentonville, Arkansas. How many CFLs do you want to sell?

Mr. ANDY RUBIN (Vice President for Sustainability, Wal-Mart): We are committed, Robert, to selling 100 million CFL bulbs this year.

SIEGEL: And if 100 million CFL bulbs replaced 100 million incandescent light bulbs, how much electricity would that save?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, if every time a customer changed out a light bulb, they will save $30 to $45 on their electric bill over the life of the bulb. If we are successful in selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs this year, in aggregate that will save U.S. customers of those bulbs three billion dollars over the life of the bulb.

SIEGEL: And what's the life of the bulb that you would assume there?

Mr. RUBIN: Five years.

SIEGEL: Five years.

Mr. RUBIN: And this is amazing. The average house has somewhere between 50 and 100 light sockets. The potential savings per year when you think about the number of sockets that could be changed, it really adds up, and it's meaningful.

SIEGEL: You have to light a lot of big spaces in your stores.

Mr. RUBIN: Yes, and just one number I'll throw out - the ceiling clouds or the ceiling fan - you see the bulbs in the ceiling fan in a Wal-Mart. One of the associates or employees in a Wal-Mart said well, if the light bulbs make so much sense, why don't we change them in the ceiling fans. That change alone saved us eight million dollars a year.

SIEGEL: Why now? Fluorescent bulbs have been around for three decades. Why is Wal-Mart so excited about them right now?

Mr. RUBIN: Two big reasons. First of all, the technology's gotten tremendously better over the past few years, and by that I mean the price has come down to where these bulbs are about $1.50 a bulb now in a Wal-Mart store. And also, the lighting quality is dramatically better than it was, let's say, in a bulb that somebody might have seen five, six years ago.

Second, there's a real desire right now for action, whether it's saving money on your electric bill, whether it's figuring out some way to personally create a change that you put less greenhouse gas or polluting elements into the air. And these bulbs, everyone can do this. This is something that everybody can do. It's as simple as changing a light bulb. We just see it as a great alternative.

SIEGEL: Well Mr. Rubin, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. RUBIN: Robert, thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Andy Rubin, who is the vice president for sustainability at Wal-Mart. He spoke to us from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

If you think that Wal-Mart is being ambitious with its goal of selling 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, well that is nothing compared to Brian Huyser of Boston and his Web site, which just about says it all, Brian Huyser, how did you get caught up with the CFL craze?

Mr. BRIAN HUYSER ( Well, the idea for one billion bulbs formed around the middle of July 2006. It was a Sunday night, and I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel on the subject of global warming. It was hosted by Tom Brokaw. So I thought it was an interesting topic, and I sat down to watch.

Now, I have to admit that I actually missed most of it, but near the end of the broadcast, I perked up a bit.

Mr. HUYSER: And I remember hearing something like if each household in the U.S -

(Soundbite of documentary)

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Broadcaster): - switched just one traditional light bulb to a long-lasting, energy-efficient fluorescent bulb, it would be the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road.

Mr. HUYSER: So I went to bed that night intrigued. And the next morning, I woke up with this vague idea that it might be interesting to build some sort of Web site which encourages lots of people to replace standard light bulbs with CFL bulbs. Because really, after all, what could be easier than changing a light bulb?

SIEGEL: That's Brian Huyser of That's his Web site. It's not always an easy sell to get Americans to switch from incandescents to CFLs, and more than 100 years ago, it was a job convincing people to switch from gas lights to electricity. Randall Stross has written about that transition in his forthcoming biography of Thomas Edison, "The Wizard of Menlo Park," which is coming out next month. Randall Stross, you've written about Edison, you're a devotee of Edison's, but I gather you've bought a couple of compact fluorescents as well.

Mr. RANDALL STROSS (Author, "The Wizard of Menlo Park"): As an experiment, in the hope that I could swap out all my incandescent bulbs for the newer technology, and I'm embarrassed to say that I only have a couple.

SIEGEL: Well, of course, much of the argument in favor of the compact fluorescent light bulb is about lowering one's electricity bills and concerns about global warming, but ultimately it does come down to what light does it give off? Do you find the two light bulbs you have are just as good for all purposes as any other light bulb you have in the house?

Mr. STROSS: I know I'm not supposed to see a difference, but I must have sensitive eyes. I recently put in the hallway the second compact fluorescent light, didn't tell anyone else, and the other night my son said would you please fix the light in the hall?

SIEGEL: Aha, and did you say welcome to the 21st century, son?

Mr. STROSS: I said this is a new kind of bulb. And in fact, we've always paid close attention to color in the light, and if you go back to the debut of the electric light, one reporter described one of Edison's earliest bulbs as one that threw off a light pure and white. That was the standard that one strove for.

There were other comparisons to the color of the sun. How well did it illuminate the skin, faces? This was also of great concern. This seems like an ethereal, intangible quality and one that can't be weighed in the same balance as the very fate of the planet, but we have always taken the quality of light very seriously.

SIEGEL: Randall Stross, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. STROSS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Randall Stross is the author of the forthcoming biography of Thomas Edison called "The Wizard of Menlo Park." We also heard from Brian Huyser about his Web site,, and from Andy Rubin, vice president for sustainability at Wal-Mart, about Wal-Mart's goal of selling 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs.

NORRIS: Not all CFLs are created equal. Find out what to look for in a CFL and calculate your home energy use at our Web site,

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