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Changing light bulbs to stem global warming

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A shopper in Wisconsin examines a display of compact florescent lights. (courtesy of Focus on Energy)

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Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt invited media to document him replacing incandescent lights in his home with compact florescent bulbs to help raise awareness about energy efficiency. (courtesy of Focus on Energy)

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Walking the walk: Green Bay, Wisconsin Mayor Jim Schmitt puts energy efficient compact florescent lights in his home. (courtesy of Focus on Energy)

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A compact fluorescent bulb (CNS/Anja Tranovich)

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An incandescent bulb and a compact fluorescent bulb (CNS/Anja Tranovich)

In the summer of 2005, normally lush Raleigh, N.C., experienced a severe drought. The city's main water source, Falls Lake, plummeted eight feet below its normal level. The drought finally ended, but the community's concern about its natural resources did not.

"It was a huge wake-up call," said Jayne Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for Raleigh’s mayor, Charles Meeker.

Meeker began extensive water conservation efforts, but he didn't stop there. Looking at the larger picture of climate change, Meeker decided to lower the city's consumption of energy--and thereby reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming--by replacing Raleigh’s incandescent street and traffic lights with light emitting diodes, or LEDs. With almost a third of the city’s energy costs going toward lighting, the LEDs are expected to trim the city’s energy use by nearly half and save $100,000 a year.

In cities and states across the country, strange bedfellows in business and politics have embraced the simplest of acts: changing a light bulb. A recent U.N. report on climate change inspired Raleigh and a half dozen other states and municipalities to find energy-efficient alternatives to incandescent bulbs.

"This is technology, economics and politics all getting fused together," said Jonathan Kevles, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy research organization.

Alternatives to incandescent bulbs make economic sense, and "reform can happen without the [federal or state] government requiring you to do it, or even being involved at all," Meeker said.

Fluorescent bulbs are also a good alternative to incandescent bulbs, but the public has been reluctant to buy them. Once known for their blue cast and fickle performance, fluorescents have become more palatable and reliable after the technology improved five years ago. The bulbs cost $3, much more than incandescents, but the consumer saves 20 times that much over the life of the bulb.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if every U.S. household replaced five incandescent bulbs with fluorescents, 1 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases would be kept out of the air over the life of the bulbs--the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from the road. Consumers would also save $6 billion in energy costs.

Several campaigns around the country are picking up on the EPA's message. New Jersey Assemblyman Larry Chatzidakis proposed a bill in February requiring all of that state's government buildings to switch to fluorescent lighting over the next three years.

And last year, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes challenged residents to change a million bulbs to fluorescents. In what became a truly grassroots initiative, a local architecture firm and an electrical engineers union donated tens of thousands of the bulbs to senior citizens and low-income families. Everyone else received a rebate for the purchase of fluorescent bulbs from the city's electric company, Kansas City Light and Power. Retailers couldn't keep enough of the bulbs in stock.

Padraic McFreen, a spokesman for Kansas City Light and Power, explained that during the summer the city’s demand for energy overloads its systems, forcing it to buy more expensive power. Reducing energy demand actually saves the company money in the end.

Focus on Energy, a Wisconsin energy conservation group, has also taken up the cause. In five years, its program has encouraged state residents to change about 1 million bulbs to fluorescents.

A California state assemblyman, Lloyd Levine, proposed the most drastic legislation in February. His "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb Act" would ban the sale of all incandescent bulbs in the state by 2012.

Some light bulb manufacturers have even embraced the legislation. Philips, which makes both kinds of bulbs, plans to stop manufacturing incandescents by 2016, even though they make up 90 percent of current bulb sales. Steve Goldmacher, a Philips spokesman, explained that the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability is also good for business. "Our green flagship products amount to billions of dollars in sales revenue," he said.

Some retailers are also getting involved. In January Wal-Mart launched a campaign to sell 100 million compact fluorescent lights in 2007.

A few of these local campaigns are aligning themselves with the larger movement to reduce global warming. California has a stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2020, the goal of the Kyoto accords; Raleigh is also looking into meeting that goal.

Dennis Murphy, Kansas City's chief environmental officer, says light bulbs are an ideal way to start.

"It's a great way of helping to raise awareness and to help people understand that they can do something," he said. "The power of the individual compounded by millions of people doing it can have a real impact."

E-mail: amt2139@columbia.edu