A Brighter Idea: The Untold Story Of The CFL (Part 1 Of 3)

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Peter Miller.

This is the first in a three-part series of the behind-the-scenes story of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL). A Brighter Idea: The Untold Story of the CFL, originally featured in the October 2012 issue of Electricity Journal, is a historical review that illustrates the unprecedented efforts taken by industry, government and other groups to bring CFLs into homes and businesses across the country. Spanning several decades and overcoming multiple obstacles, this accomplishment represents a modern success story: saving consumers money, reducing costs for utilities, growing the economy, and protecting the environment.

The first part of The Untold Story of the CFL discusses the early development of this lighting innovation and the efforts to bring the CFL to capacity to compete in the market:

I. A New Kind of Lightbulb

When Phillips released the Model SL lightbulb in 1980, it was significantly different from the incandescent bulbs used for the previous century: It used far less energy, generated less heat, and lasted much longer.

But as the first compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) on the market, the Model SL sold for at least $12 (an inflation-adjusted $30 today)1 – more than 16 times the price of a standard 100-watt bulb at that time. With prices as high as $35 in the mid-1980s,2 it took an unprecedented collaborative and innovative effort to finally bring the revolutionary more energy-efficient CFL into homes across the country over a quarter-century later.

CFL bulb

image via Shutterstock

Although CFLs represent a modern success story – saving consumers money, reducing costs for utilities, growing the economy, and protecting the environment – the early CFLs were not only expensive, they were too big and heavy for many lamps. They flickered and took a painfully long time to light up. And they were competing against a lightbulb that was so used and useful, that it had become the symbol for a brighter idea in American culture.

Since Edison’s day, the entire market for residential lighting has grown up around the standard incandescent lightbulb. Over the past hundred years, this ‘‘A-line’’ bulb has developed into an inexpensive, reliable mass market product that provides a warm, even light as soon as you flip the switch. Lighting fixtures, sockets, and lamps are all designed to function with a bulb that is the same size, shape, and weight of a standard incandescent bulb.

Consumers, too, are well adapted to this product. Most everyone knows whether they want a bulb with the brightness of a 100-watt bulb or the softer light from a 60-watt bulb, even though they may not have the slightest idea what a watt is. It’s not surprising that people are accustomed to buying this iconic object given that their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents bought remarkably similar lightbulbs in decades past.

Facing one of the most successful mass market products of all time, it seemed unlikely that the expensive, bulky, and balky CFL would thrive. However, early versions of other now-popular consumer products faced similar obstacles. For example, the first personal computers were a long way from the popularity they enjoy today. Like the Phillips SL, the Apple 1 was of limited market potential given the early state of the technology. Both products needed to provide much better value to grow beyond the narrow market of lifetime subscribers to Popular Science.

Without taking away from the accomplishments of the early Silicon Valley pioneers, CFLs faced a far more difficult path to the mass market. While personal computers offered a dazzling array of ever-expanding services and communications and entertainment horizons compared to the electric typewriter it sought to replace, the CFL was – and remains – an alternative to the incandescent lightbulb without obvious and instantly apparent benefits. Hundreds of dollars in annual electric bill savings and cleaner air are no less real and, at least to some, may be of even greater benefit than the latest tablet computer, but to most people a CFL is merely another way to provide light after the sun goes down.

This fundamental difference between the CFL and other early consumer products required new approaches to bring the highly efficient bulbs to the mass market success they enjoy today. In fact, this accomplishment required a novel, decades-long collaborative effort involving manufacturers, utilities, government agencies, and energy efficiency advocates.

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