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The obsolescent incandescent.

In an age of rapid technological development, Thomas Edison's unpresuming incandescent light bulb has shown remarkable staying power. Now, however, a green revolution may be on the verge of making this technological centenarian as old-fashioned a way of producing light as the gramophone is of reproducing music.

The young upstart is the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), first introduced in the late 1980s by the Dutch company Philips, past popularizer of the cassette and compact disc players. The CFL, which squeezes efficient fluorescent lighting technology into a package comparable to standard bulbs in size and color quality, has recently enjoyed a world-wide sales boom of its own. Since 1988, sales have grown more than 30 percent a year, from about 45 million to more than triple that today.

Even with this success, the estimated 160 million CFLs sold in 1992 were easily outshone by the 9 billion incandescents purchased that year. But CFLs last so long that each one in use supplants a succession of 10 regular bulbs. Thus while CFLs comprised less than 2 percent of the lamps of this size sold in 1992, they have already taken a healthy 13 percent bite out of the market in terms of hours of lighting capacity sold.

Meanwhile, in the Western European countries where the CFL is strongest, sales of regular bulbs have stagnated. This complementary trend should only spread as CFL growth continues apace. Annual production of the new lamps is likely to pass 300 million in 1996, according to Evan Mills, assistant director of the Center for Building Science at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

To appreciate the inefficiency of an incandescent bulb, all a person has to do is touch one - but not for too long. A standard bulb puts out more heat than light, because it expends more than 90 percent of the electrical energy it draws just keeping its tungsten filament hot enough to glow.

In contrast, the modern CFL embodies several decades of innovation in efficient fluorescent lighting. It uses electricity to excite a tube-confined gas, which then radiates ultraviolet rays. Phosphors on the inner surface of the tube convert this radiation to visible light, and much less heat. As a result, a CFL is four times as efficient as an incandescent bulb.

Wherever the new lamp has caught on, it has saved money for both consumers and utilities by slowing the growth of expenditures on electric power plant operation and construction. And by requiring less electricity from traditional sources - nuclear energy, hydropower, and fossil fuels - it has helped to alleviate environmental problems ranging from radioactive waste generation, thermal pollution, and damming of river ecosystems to acid rain and global warming.

Despite these benefits, consumers will find that CFLs do not always make perfect substitutes for conventional bulbs. Somewhat longer and thinner, they disperse their radiance less uniformly and are too big for some fixtures. The may also seem prohibitively expensive at $15 to $20 per bulb - enough to give any buyer pause.

First impressions can mislead, however. Manufacturers are continuing to improve their designs, and already CFLs can substitute for bulbs in most situations. And even with its higher purchase price, the new lamp's longevity and efficiency are so superior to those of a conventional bulb that over its lifetime, it is actually cheaper. Once bought, a CFL consuming electricity at eight cents per kilowatt-hour (an average U.S. rate) for three hours each day will eventually save a buyer $35, even accounting for the lost income from not putting the money into long-term savings. In Japan, where electricity costs more than 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, the same CFL would save more than $55. Since the new lamps save more than they cost, consumers may come to see them less as expenses than as investments.

When the CFL first appeared, its long-term financial and environmental advantages were less than obvious - and, not surprisingly, it attracted few customers. Governments in the United States and Europe began to experiment with ways to encourage its use, generally through a mixture of consumer education and buyer incentives. It is these ongoing efforts by utility regulators and government agencies, rather than the appetites of independent consumers, that have powered the CFL sales surge.

Last year, for example, on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the French electric company and environmental protection agency collaboratcd on a large-scale CFL incentive program. They advertised, arranged a volume purchase with a producer to bring down the price, and offered retailers small rebates. They also helped buyers finance the purchases, so that the money they saved on electricity would cover the monthly installment payments on the lamps, and their total bills would still go down immediately.

The response was overwhelming. The government expected that available supplies of 100,000 would suffice. But households scooped up those in a day and a half and went on to order 258,000 more. No doubt this initial success will stimulate even more CFL sales in the future.

The government-owned utility subsidizes every kilowatt-hour of electricity it sells in Guadeloupe, charging customers less than half the cost of generation from expensive, imported diesel fuel. By reducing sales of electricity, the utility's one-time $460,000 expenditure will save it $3.5 million annually, according to Mills - an astronomical rate of return on investment.

Each $16.50 lamp will also save its buyer $50 on electricity and unneeded incandescent bulbs over a typical lifetime of seven years. A money market account would have to earn 50 percent interest annually to compete with that. And consuming less of the island's diesel-fired electricity will pay an environmental dividend as well, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 17,000 metric tons a year-equivalent to removing more than 3,000 cars from the streets of a congested city.

The diminutive island's initiative was "the largest and most effective CFL rebate campaign held anywhere in the world," says Mills. Although the success of such programs may vary from country to country, the basic incentives and methods are applicable in economies of all sizes and levels of industrial development. In fact, CFL programs are already underway in almost every industrialized country.

In the United States, full conversion to CFLs would cut electricity consumption in homes up to 8 percent. This would shave 2.5 percent off the country's overall electricity use, and 1 percent off total energy use - no mean feat, but not enough to single-handedly reverse long-term trends in greenhouse gas emissions or acid rain formation. Going further will require exploiting the similarly dramatic efficiency improvements now available in refrigeration, heating, and air-conditioning, possibly through similar programs.

In the Third World, where the demand for electricity is growing fastest, the potential gain from accelerating the shift to CFLs is even greater. Developing countries borrow and spend tens of billions of dollars each year for new plant construction and electricity subsidization. Unfortunely, only a few of these countries, notably Brazil and China, are currently manufacturing CFLs for substantial domestic use. By lessening the need for new electrical generating capacity, developing countries will free p precious financial resources for more productive purposes, while reducing pressures on the ecosystems that sustain their people.

Someday, manufacturers hope CFLs will be standard in all new homes and lighting fixtures. Replacements should eventually cost $5 or less. When that day comes, the efficiency revolution in lighting will have succeeded, and the incandescent bulb will at long last be able to join Edison's thousand other inventions now in museums in quiet retirement.
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Title Annotation:replacing the ordinary light bulb with the compact fluorescent camp, CFL
Author:Roodman, David Malin
Publication:World Watch
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.
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