August 20, 2009
To Build a Better Lightbulb
An article in Saturday's New York Times reports on the day to day problems some climate-conscious adopters of CFL technology are having with their own conversion to the greener lightbulbs du jour. From quality control issues, to the very perception of the light, consumers are racking up their minor annoyances on blogs across the net; and while this highlights many problems associated with being on the forefront of technology -- namely, that things sometimes just don't work perfectly right out of the box, or on version 1.0 -- what the article only briefly mentions before setting it aside is the fact that no one would be having these debates on anything but a small, niche level if the cost of CFL's had not been bought down on a massive scale in a large, concerted effort by the Department of Energy.
It used to be compact fluorescents cost $30 a pop, but beginning in 1998 the Department of Energy asked manufacturers "to create cheaper models and then helped find large-volume buyers, like universities and utilities, to buy them."
In fact, CFL's never would have made it outside of the General Electric IP vault had the design not been leaked and then copied. Because GE, once they examined the invention -- engineered by GE designer Ed Hammer in 1976 in response to the 1973 oil crisis -- shelved it after they determined that it would cost around $25 million to build new factories to produce them.
The Times article goes on to elaborate: when the DOE began acting as the middle-man "that jump-started a mass market and eventually led to sales of discounted bulbs at retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart Stores and Home Depot."
What seems to have happened, according to some, is that suppliers -- many of them in China -- started using substandard components.
"Somebody decides to save a little money somewhere," according to Victor Roberts, an independant expert in Burnt Hills, NY, "and suddenly we have hundreds of thousands of failures."
The government, which will begin enforcing tighter specifications this year, says it must seek a balance between quality and affordability to achieve its goal of getting millions of additional consumers to install the bulbs.
"Something that is perfect but not affordable wouldn't serve the broad interests," said Peter Banwell, the Energy Department's manager of product marketing for Energy Star. ...
... In California, where [the] bulbs have been heavily encouraged, utilities have concluded that they will not be able to persuade a majority of consumers to switch until compact fluorescents get better. That is prompting them to develop specifications for a better bulb.
The effort aims to address the most [common] consumer complaints: poor dimming, slow warm-up times, shortened bulb life because of high temperatures inside enclosed fixtures, and dissatisfaction with the color of the light.
"Because of the aggressive goals in California, we have to be pushing the envelope at all times," said Roland Risser, director of customer efficiency at Pacific Gas and Electric.
So while nothing is perfect, the process is in motion. Without the Department of Energy's action, CFL's would have been nothing but a niche market. Now they're part of a national debate, a majority movement that is growing by the day.