A Requiem for the CFL Light Bulb

General Electric is flipping the switch on the harsh, energy-saving bulbs that divided a nation.

Image AP/Carolyn Kaster
AP/Carolyn Kaster

The harsh white glow has gone out, but its memory will live on.

Light-bulb manufacturing giant General Electric announced this week that it’s cutting off production of compact fluorescent lamps to put more energy into building LEDs. The soon-to-be-defunct CFLs were invented in the mid-1980s but really hit their peak in the 2000s, when they became inextricably linked with the sustainability movement due to their lower energy needs. They also faced criticism from consumers who hated the stark, grating light they produced or considered them a tool of crypto-fascist government encroachment into the personal lives of citizens.

In the end, aesthetics combined with economics to unscrew the CFL. LED bulbs offer better efficiency and light quality, and even programmable features that connect with other smart-home appliances, but they used to be way more expensive. Now LED bulb prices have plummeted from $40-$50 in 2012 to a little more than $3. The swift dimming of the CFL’s legacy, then, illuminates the dangers of hanging too much environmental advocacy on the back of a particular technology or consumer product. It puts all that work at risk of swiftly becoming obsolete.

Burning bright

America had been using incandescent light bulbs since Thomas Edison invented them in 1879, but this practice became problematic when the crisis of climate change asserted itself. Incandescents, it turns out, use about 90 percent of their energy to generate heat—they’re just not very efficient as a light source. That’s why sustainability advocates in the 2000s started pushing people to convert to CFLs: they use one-quarter to one-third less energy than incandescents and last 10 to 15 times longer.

Bulb manufacturers made sure to tout the money one could save by switching to CFLs and marketed their products as what the environment wants. One GE television ad shows a woman flipping off the CFL in a greenery-filled room only to discover all the plants having a dance party, because nothing gets the herbage frisky like highly efficient lampware.

It’s in a company’s financial interest to tie their products to a social movement that’s gaining steam, but mainstream environmental groups were happy to spread the word. Environmental advocacy groups hyped switching to CFLs on lists of easy actions you, the consumer, could take to save the planet. Climate change activism became, in some sense, CFL-activism. And that led to inflated expectation, with claims like “CFLs could cut global lighting energy demand by 40 percent.”

It’s over

Not everyone wanted to flip on a CFL and dance around with their plants. Many objected to the lighting itself, more like a sterile office lamp than a warm and homely luminescence. Others grew concerned about the trace amounts of mercury contained in the bulbs. Then there was a faction of folks who felt, like former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, that “the government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy.”

But all that is gone now. The culture wars, the you-should-use-this-bulb and the no-I-won’t-use-that-bulb. The reason for battle vanished before either side could win.

GE actually broke the news in the form of a (surprisingly Millennial-friendly) break-up letter with an impressive density of puns, as far as corporate press releases go: “You were on again, off again … LED is my future, and my future couldn’t be brighter.” The mighty CFL, reduced to a Valentine’s Day-themed punchline. Which begs the question: Why did the U.S. spend so much time and effort fighting over the 8-track tape of light bulbs?

GE

All technologies fade, some faster than others. When the sustainability movement chose CFL as its champion, it was taking the easier route of focusing advocacy on the point of individual consumption. Buy this particular product and you’re helping fight climate change. Every little bit helps, obviously, but this kind of thinking makes the little bits the stars of the show. The goal behind purchasing CFLs was to trim carbon emissions from our use of electricity. A much more effective way to do that would be to decarbonize electricity sources, much like President Obama set out to do with the Clean Power Plan. Even those hedonistic incandescent bulbs can’t release CO2 if the power source they draw on is clean.

As we lay our CFLs to rest (carefully, so you don’t release the mercury), let us use this time to reflect on what we really want in life, not on the trendy objects that might substitute for that desire. Then the trusty CFL won’t have shuffled off its mortal coil in vain.

About the Author

  • Julian Spector is an editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.