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Subtle Lessons In GE’s CFL Phaseout

image by Griffin Hagle

Originally published on Medium.
By Griffin Hagle

Last week, GE announced that it will stop manufacturing CFLs by the end of 2016. In what may be the clearest sign yet that the LED has arrived as the world’s preferred light source, the company expects LEDs to occupy half of US light sockets by 2020. That’s a very good thing.

Still, the news was poignant for me. Like most people, I won’t miss the damn things, but the Internet’s reaction to the announcement — basically, “Bye, Felicia!”— struck me as a little unfair. Commenters griped about slow warm-up times, harsh light, and their (negligible) mercury vapor content, reprising criticism I first heard back in 2007, when I did energy program outreach for a community action agency.

As part of that job, which was up-funded by President Obama’s stimulus in 2009, I presented regular one-hour seminars for homeowners and renters applying for utility bill payment and weatherization services, and CFLs were staples of a conservation kit they took home with them. I covered topics like the optimal water heater temperature setting and how to apply shrink-wrap window insulation, reeling off examples of how much money these measures could save you  —  if your house happened to behave like a spreadsheet.

Eyes rolled then, as they do today, for reasons that are now clearer to my understanding. It wasn’t that it was bad general information, or that the minor irritation of getting it from an overenthusiastic whippersnapper wasn’t worth the financial lifeline cast in return. It was because the story I was telling, in which CFLs played a starring role, failed to solve any actual problems.

Some people took their two complimentary bulbs with gratitude, if not enthusiasm. Some accepted them with a winking acknowledgement, as if they were a government-funded joke they wanted reassurance we were both in on. Still others flatly refused them.

Over the decade since, I’ve tried to pay more attention to the values that drive most people to act. The physicist and climate visionary Amory Lovins boiled these down to things like “hot showers, cold beer, comfort, mobility, [and] illumination.” That is to say, our best hope of solving big, hairy, abstract environmental problems is to first solve the basic problems of ordinary people.

In this respect, the LED is the CFL as it should have been — a light bulb with fans, not apologists. Even more encouraging is its arrival at a time of broader change, not only in the way people are powering their homes, utilities are paying for energy efficiency, or government policies and private institutions are spooling up efforts that bode well for the built environment, but in the way green advocates are learning to tell better stories, with less emphasis on saving the planet, and more on problem-solving.

Like the Zune or LaserDisc, CFLs appear to be on their way at last to wherever it is unloved consumer technology goes to die. (You can usher your own CFLs through the Pearly Gates in environmentally responsible fashion at many hardware and home improvement retailers.) Unlike those examples, though, obsolescence is perhaps the fullest measure of their success.

Looking back from a future overwhelmingly illuminated by LEDs, I hope we can remember the CFL with respect, as an ugly duckling that nevertheless symbolized a turning of the green tide (after all, what energy efficiency logo would be complete without it?) and proved, by its own quietus, that where human beings are concerned, sophistication is always a more compelling call to action on climate than sacrifice. For this, they’ll always occupy a special socket in my heart.

Griffin Hagle is an advocate for sustainable buildings and energy sources that deliver the comfort, health, and economic security human beings everywhere deserve.

Image by Griffin Hagle

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