Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shedding light on the benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs

Shedding light on the benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Compact florescent light bulbs have been such a darling in efforts to fight pollution and curb global warming that it hardly seems necessary to tout their benefits. They provide light just was well as the incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with, but they use only about one-fourth of the electricity.

Since lighting accounts for an average of 20 percent of domestic electricity use, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents throughout your house can yield a 15 percent savings on your overall bill for electricity. Fifteen percent. On a bill you pay month after month, year after year. For a very modest one-time investment in new light bulbs, and with no further sacrifice in comfort or convenience.

The cumulative impact of many people switching to more energy efficient lighting is also impressive. According to the U.S. EPA, “If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.”

Currently compact fluorescent bulbs are available for just about every home lighting application you can think of, and they don’t suffer from the slow start up or unpleasant colors that sometimes turned people off when they were first introduced.

The only real drawback to the current generation of compact fluorescents is that they contain mercury, which is an issue in two ways.

First, if a bulb breaks in your home you need to take special care as you clean up the pieces. Recently some folks who are bothered by the push for energy conservation as a response to climate change have seized on this as evidence that environmentalists care more about the welfare of the planet than the health of individuals. They point out that in the worst-case scenario, EPA recommends throwing away bedding or clothes if a broken bulb winds up on them.

That’s enough to give one pause. But context is important here. I’ll hazard that few people will ever actually have to throw away a shirt or a blanket because they have broken a light bulb on it. On the other hand, everyone benefits from the long-term reductions in pollution that come from conserving electricity with compact fluorescent bulbs. Those reductions include a significant net decrease in environmental mercury and the other pollutants associated with the generation of electricity, including greenhouse gases.

Because compact fluorescents contain a small amount of mercury, it is also best that they not wind up in landfills when they burn out. Some cities, including Urbana, offer programs for recycling them. But more importantly, retailers that sell lighting have begun to do their part, as well. In Champaign, Tepper Electric on South Neil Street now accepts compact fluorescents for recycling at no charge, and Home Depot does the same at its stores nationwide. Fortunately, with compact fluorescents there are fewer bulbs to dispose of, since they last about eight times as long as incandescents.

People who are informed about climate change and the varieties environmental degradation that go with most prevalent forms of generating electricity know that switching to compact fluorescent lights in our homes is not a panacea. It is, however, a painless step in the right direction.