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Some see CFLs in a bad light

Marketplace Staff Feb 25, 2008

Some see CFLs in a bad light

Marketplace Staff Feb 25, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: San Francisco’s the place to be this week if you’re the type who enjoys discussing greenhouse gas emissions policy. A group called Carbon Forum America’s holding its annual conference there, more than 1,000 people talking about carbon regulation. The energy bill that passed in December took a step in that direction. It included a plan to phase out the sale of incandescent bulbs. You’re not going to find super-efficient light emitting diodes in grocery store aisles just yet, but those swirly compact fluorescent lightbulbs are at eye-level pretty much everywhere. That doesn’t mean people want to buy them.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Joellen Easton reports.

JOELLEN EASTON: Scot Case’s job is showing companies how to reduce waste and save energy without losing money, so it makes sense that he’d use compact fluorescent bulbs in his own home, but there’s just one problem.

SCOT CASE: When you turn on the light switch they warm up kind of slowly before they get bright.

And his wife, Victoria Williams, she hates that. She’s a professor at a nearby college and is most definitely not an environmentalist.

VICTORIA WILLIAMS: I like to walk into a room, flip the light switch and have it instantly as bright as I want it to be.

Case uses all sorts of techniques in his battle with wife Victoria to get CFLs into the house. He tries to find ones that look like incandescent bulbs. He puts them in hard-to-reach fixtures. He mixes them up with the regular bulbs so any difference in light is subtle.

CASE: Victoria has for many years said, “Well you know, when I’m buying all this stuff you’ve won.”

Plenty of other people are buying CFLs. The energy-saving bulbs made up 20 percent of the U.S. lightbulb market in 2007 and sales, they’re doubling annually. Noah Horowitz is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says CFLs have come a long way in the last 10 years.

NOAH HOROWITZ: When you flicked the switch there’d be a delay and a blink, blink, blink and you might’ve looked like a Martian underneath because of the light quality. Today’s CFLs are much, much better, as they’re much smaller. They come in a spiral or a curlicue shape. They’ll fit in a lot more sockets. They turn on instantly and give very good light quality.

But there’s just no getting over that slow warm up period that Victoria Williams hates so much. Horowitz hopes consumers will look past that to the environmental and cost savings and the bulbs’ “non-energy benefits,” that reduced maintenance and longer life. Jorge Fernandez is the lightbulb merchant at Home Depot. He picks the bulbs the store carries, and he’s working with Home Depot’s vendors to develop a smarter CFL. He says a new bulb, set to launch this year, could warm up twice as fast as existing compact fluorescent

JORGE FERNANDEZ: It’s a brand new design and it adds a layer of intelligence to the lightbulb that will enable it to have an instant “on” feature and a faster warmup time that will then gradually decrease to the light efficiency and the energy efficiency people are talking about.

But it’ll be some time before consumers can put these “intelligent” bulbs in the lamp next to their reading chair. The first generation of the new technology is designed for specialized settings like security lights. Fernandez says manufacturers are rushing to meet consumer needs. They’re designing compact fluorescent bulbs that can dim properly, and they’re making them in a range of styles and light intensities.

FERNANDEZ: It really is all about making this as much like the lightbulbs that people grew up with as possible.

Skeptical consumers, like Victoria Williams, aren’t easy to persuade. They want a more environmentally-friendly product, sure, but they don’t want to compromise. But if CFL-makers really can make the new bulbs look and behave like their incandescent cousins, then maybe skeptics like Victoria will warm up to them — eventually.

I’m Joellen Easton for Marketplace.

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