Consumers are at the switch

Marketplace Staff Mar 13, 2007
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Consumers are at the switch

Marketplace Staff Mar 13, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: Turn out the lights. The party’s all but over for the incandescent bulb.

There’s a conference tomorrow in Washington about how to turn the U.S. to more efficient lighting within 10 years. California lawmakers are considering a bill to change from incandescent bulbs to more energy efficient fluorescents by 2012. Australia’s gonna beat that. It plans to phase out incandescents entirely by 2010.

Commentator Tom McNichol says the trend’s more about shifting consumer priorities than it is the power of technology.


TOM MCNICHOL: In the 20th century, new technologies were all about convenience. If an invention made life easier, it was good.

But here in the 21st century, consumers increasingly base their choices on survival, not convenience.

Take the shift from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs consume lots of electricity, but convert only about 5 percent of it into light.

Now Thomas Edison knew that when he developed the first practical incandescent bulb in 1879. It’s just that in Edison’s day, light bulbs beat gas lights.

But now, with rising global warming fears, people are applying different standards to the same technology. Fluorescents give off a harsh, flickering light. But they use far less electricity than incandescents, and that means tons less greenhouse gases. So now, efficiency trumps brightness.

Other technologies, like the gasoline engine and even computers with their high costs of waste disposal may well fall victim to the same changing standards. Imagine an engine that runs on hydrogen, or a much smaller computer that lasts three times longer. Outdoor barbecues and NASCAR races may soon be seen less as harmless pastimes and more like giant CO2 parties.

But as they say, necessity is the mother of Invention. General Electric recently announced it plans to introduce a new, high-efficiency incandescent bulb by 2010, perhaps saving Edison’s invention after all.

Only one thing seems certain: what’s going to continue to change is our perception of consumer convenience. After all, a bright, energy-wasting light bulb isn’t all that convenient if it ends up leaving us all in the dark.

RYSSDAL: Tom McNichol’s a senior editor at Business 2.0 Magazine.

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