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Future Dims for Incandescent Light Bulbs

A grassroots movement to phase out inefficient light bulbs is gaining international strength. The movement is promoting the replacement of traditional incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents, a switch that activists say will help cut global electricity use and reduce harmful global warming emissions.

Fifty-five million light bulbs are sold every day in the United States. Most of these are incandescent bulbs in which electricity passing through a thin metal filament inside the bulb's sealed vacuum turns it white-hot and throws off light.

A lot of electricity is wasted in the process, compared with the compact fluorescents, or CFLs, which currently account for just 5 percent of U.S. light bulb sales. The new fluorescents are most commonly shaped like short glass spirals, roughly the same size as incandescents but five times more costly at the checkout counter.

But proponents of the new bulbs note that compact fluorescents use one quarter as much electricity and last 10 times longer than the old filament bulbs.

A single CFL can last between five and ten years.

Lester Brown is an environmental analyst and President of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. He says people around the globe are waking up to the energy and economic savings of CFLs. "In February Australia announced that it was going to be phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2010. New Zealand, while it doesn't have a formal plan yet, says it plans to take the same steps that Australia has taken."

In April the government of Canada announced its plans to ban the most inefficient lighting by 2012. John Cockburn is charged with developing Canada's national bulb standards. He says the target is the common 40 to 100 watt bulb. "It is 120-year old technology, and we think we have good replacements for that now."

Similar actions are being considered by the European Union Countries and more than a dozen U.S. states, a move backed by Phillips, the world's largest lighting manufacturer.

General Electric, second to Phillips in the lighting market, is considering another strategy. Spokeswoman Kim Freeman says the company is developing a new high-efficiency incandescent for household use that would replace the most popular bulbs used by consumers.

"It will be twice as efficient as current incandescents by 2010, and four times as efficient or on a par with CFLs by 2012."

Freeman says G.E. is against banning a specific technology. Instead, she says, the company is working with public and private-sector partners to establish lighting efficiency standards to help improve the environment.

Currently the only available alternative is the compact fluorescent. Lester Brown with Earth Policy Institute says the switch could shut down 270 large coal-fired plants. "That amounts to about 3 percent of world electricity generation." He says the switch made in commercial and street lighting would account for another 3 percent reduction in energy use.

Brown says mounting evidence of global warming and its consequences will continue to drive improvements in efficient lighting technology, and will continue to fuel consumer interest in the compact fluorescent light bulb.