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It’s Easy Being Green: A Bright Idea

Compact fluorescent light bulbs have been around for years, but still aren’t as widely used as they could be. It’s time for a second look.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs use less electricity and last longer than standard incandescent bulbs. Steps are being taken to reduce the risks associated with the small amounts of mercury they contain. (AP/Donald King)
Compact fluorescent light bulbs use less electricity and last longer than standard incandescent bulbs. Steps are being taken to reduce the risks associated with the small amounts of mercury they contain. (AP/Donald King)

Food and gas prices are soaring, the home foreclosure crisis is projected to continue, the war in Iraq drags into its fifth year, and almost four in five Americans think the country is on the wrong track. So what do Americans have to be happy about? They can save some money on electricity bills—while fighting climate change—with compact fluorescent light bulbs. While CFLs have been around for some time, they still aren’t as widely used as they could be. Despite concerns about the mercury they contain, CFLs remain a cost-efficient way to save energy.

Switching to CFLs would save the average American household between $85 and $130 per year in reduced electricity costs. The math is simple: The average residence in the United States spends $95.66 per month on electricity, artificial lighting consumes 15 percent of the average household’s electricity use, and CFLs reduce energy used for lighting by 50 to 75 percent. You can calculate how much CFLs will save you here.

CFLs last 10 times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs, use a quarter of the electricity—thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and save $30 or more each over their lifespan. The bulbs initially cost more than incandescents, but pay for themselves many times over through energy savings and longer lifespan.

A CFL’s lifespan is much shorter if the bulb is constantly being turned on and off, and for this reason, ENERGY STAR suggests using CFLs only in fixtures that will be used for over 15 minutes per day. This limitation does little to cut into the savings available with CFLs, however, because the lights that consume the most electricity are those that are used most.

CFLs do contain small amounts of mercury, a heavy metal that in high amounts affects the human nervous system. Even so, a closer look reveals that the risks of CFLs with small amounts of mercury can be reduced, making the bulbs better than the alternatives:

  • The mercury released while generating the power for less efficient incandescent bulbs is actually greater than the amount of mercury in a CFL and the mercury emissions needed to power it combined. Fifty percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by coal power plants, and burning coal releases mercury.
  • CFLs do not release mercury into the environment unless the bulb breaks, and the bulbs can be disposed of safely. Recycling is currently available in many areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency is working with manufacturers and retailers to expand recycling and other disposal options.
  • Scientists are developing new ways to clean up mercury if a bulb breaks.
  • Producers are constantly reducing the amount of mercury in CFLs.

Discussions on climate change often focus on technologies that can produce clean power (like wind and solar), but overlook conservation measures—like using CFLs—that can reduce the need for power altogether. Conservation is the most cost-efficient way to reduce GHG emissions. Programs that encourage energy efficiency cost 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour saved over the course of their lifetimes, and they avert the need for electricity, which averages 8.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

CFLs are a perfect example of how we can conserve energy and save money while saving the environment—that makes them a bright idea.

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