A new light is about to burn more brightly: the stubby, squiggly fluorescent bulb. Environmentalists love it, Wal-Mart is promoting it and Australia is eyeing it as an easy way to save energy and curb global warming.
Now, California lawmakers are giving it some wattage by considering a ban on the sale of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs beginning in 2012.
The proposed switch represents a revolution in a lampshade, because incandescents account for 95% of light bulb sales. Replacing each descendant of Thomas A. Edison’s invention with a low-energy, long-lasting, compact fluorescent bulb would slash electricity consumption by 75%, proponents say.
Retired aerospace engineer Frank Vincent is sold. “I use them. It saves me energy and it saves me money on that energy,” said Vincent, 63, who was shopping Friday at a Wal-Mart store on Crenshaw Boulevard.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has thrown considerable marketing might behind the newfangled bulbs, urging its 100 million customers to buy at least one. The world’s largest retailer says that would collectively save them $3 billion over the bulbs’ life.
The companies that make traditional incandescent bulbs aren’t ready to accept the idea that their wares might go the way of the whale-oil lamp, despite talk of bans in California and Britain and Australia’s announcement this week that it would phase out the sale of the older-style bulbs over the next two years.
General Electric Co., the company Edison founded in the late 1800s and the largest light bulb manufacturer in the United States, announced Friday that it was developing a new generation of incandescent bulbs that would be twice as efficient as the current version and would be ready for the market in 2010. An even more energy-stingy version -- equal to the current compact fluorescents -- could be in stores by 2012, when California’s proposed prohibition would take effect.
“We want consumers to know they will have an energy-efficient incandescent choice. It does not have to be one or the other,” said Kim Freeman, a spokeswoman for GE’s lighting division.
Many energy experts applaud the California bulb ban bill as a natural move by government to raise energy-efficiency standards, akin to requiring new homes to have high-rated thermal insulation and double-pane windows.
“There are sound economic reasons for this,” said Peter Navarro, an energy economist at UC Irvine. “If you just rely on the marketplace, you’re not going to solve the problem.”
The bulb bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), called outlawing traditional incandescent bulbs “a simple idea” that would save resources while causing little or no inconvenience to consumers. “When you’re running short of power, one thing you can do is find a way to make that energy go farther,” he said. It’s too early to tell how the bill, which was introduced Thursday, will fare in the Legislature and with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But some consumers queried in discount store aisles say they just don’t like the bulb’s shape or the light it gives off. Even more, they dislike being dictated to by politicians. “They are telling me which light bulb to use?” asked Marie Riser, 57, a caretaker for senior citizens. “Talk about Big Brother. It’s almost here.”
Riser predicted that many low-income shoppers might spurn the compact fluorescent bulbs because they cost much more than standard bulbs.
Fans counter that compact fluorescent bulbs, because they can last 10 times as long as the incandescent kind, are competitive on cost over the long term. At the Crenshaw Wal-Mart, a standard 60-watt bulb costs 59 cents when sold in a four-pack, while a fluorescent costs $2.52 as part of a three-unit package.
The state’s utilities also are helping to bring compact fluorescent prices down. Southern California Edison Co., for instance, funded consumer rebates for about 6 million compact fluorescent bulbs last year and handed out 218,000 free ones to low-income ratepayers.
Converting a single 60-watt incandescent bulb to a comparable 13-watt compact fluorescent can save a homeowner $30 by the time the bulb burns out, says 18seconds.org, a new website backed by a coalition of government agencies, businesses, environmentalists and celebrities. The group takes its name from the 18 seconds it says it takes to change a light bulb.
And that’s just the savings for the individual shopper. The payoff for society and the planet is much more dramatic. Using one compact fluorescent bulb could eliminate the need to burn 110 pounds of coal to generate electricity.
It also prevents 450 pounds of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to climate change, 18seconds.org says.
In California, an estimated 73 million incandescent light bulbs and 6 million compact fluorescents are sold each year, the state Energy Commission said. Slightly more than half of California homes had at least one compact fluorescent bulb in 2005. The average house has 40 bulbs, with about 10% of those compact fluorescents.
Major bulb manufacturers agree that the compact fluorescents they make are eco-friendly, but they’re turned off by the thought of banning one of their longtime products.
Osram Sylvania says it’s pleased that the California measure and a similar initiative suggested by Australian Energy Minister Malcolm Turnbull are creating a buzz in the media and interest among consumers. However, the company, a unit of Germany’s Siemens, agrees with competitor GE that incandescent bulbs should be improved, not eliminated.
For its part, Royal Philips Electronics backs Levine’s goal of phasing out power-sucking incandescent bulbs. “It’s the right thing to do,” said spokesman Steve Goldmacher. But Philips still would like to tweak the California bill so that new types of higher-efficiency incandescent halogen bulbs could be sold after 2012.
A Philips halogen bulb that uses 50% less electricity, he said, will be available this year.
Levine, the legislator, says he’s open to looking at new technologies if they become commercially viable.
In the meantime, California shouldn’t try to mandate compact fluorescent bulbs for every household use, said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley.
Borenstein burns both types of bulbs at his home in the Bay Area community of Orinda but has discovered that fluorescents don’t work as well as incandescent bulbs with recessed lighting fixtures, spotlights and ultra-low dimming switches.
“There are a lot of places we really should be using compact fluorescents more,” he said. “But there are a lot of situations where incandescent still makes a lot of sense.”
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Battle of the bulbs
*--* Incandescent Fluorescent Retail price of bulb 48¢ $8.39 Lamp life, in hours 1,500 12,000 Life of bulb, in years 1 8.2 Energy consumed, in watts 75 20 Energy use per year, in kWh 109.5 29.2 Energy cost per year $9.30 $2.50 Total cost per year $9.78 $3.52
Note: Based on 2004 bulb prices, 4 hours of daily use and $0.085 per kWh.
Source: Rocky Mountain Institute