Consumer Technology

Published on February 12th, 2016 | by Guest Contributor


Subtle Lessons In GE’s CFL Phaseout

February 12th, 2016 by  

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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  • I Think

    Began switching to LED’s back when an LED replacement for a halogen mr11 cost $28 at the box stores continue to switch today as needed.
    Am doing my best to super insulate my new home abuilding, as finances allow.

  • super390

    It’s only been what, 36 months since the Tea Partiers were telling us that the government ban on incandescent light bulbs would lead to the collapse of civilization and the triumph of Communism?
    Their followers have conveniently erased and reset their memories for the next outrage du jour – several times over again. The rest of us have learned nothing from the implications of their antics; that the always-changing “past” and “traditions” they seek to save from the giant Black/Mexican/Moslem/gay/atheist/Communist conspiracy are just code words for something else that they love about selected aspects of the past.

    • I Think

      CFL’s written into law by Bush, are still referred to as Obama bulbs by a neighbor.

  • Steve Grinwis

    Very well written article. Loved it.

  • Freddy D

    I think we advocates of energy efficiency did not pay attention enough and listen enough to the reality of just how crappy that sickly green light is from CFLs. I love this line in the article: “Over the decade since, I’ve tried to pay more attention to the values that drive most people to act.” Beautiful. We must do as much listening and introspection as telling. Now that those hideous light bulbs are going away, what’s on the table now? EVs. And what’s the most popular selling car in the US? Full size pickups, which aren’t my cup of tea as a daily driver or as a vehicle to make a statement about who I am. But as an advocate, I must see the culture that likes these as making a statement and realize that I won’t change the culture – we need to change the infrastructure so people can have their toys and be easy on the environment. I personally went through this mindset shift and realized the power of shifting the conversation from an uphill battle to a win-win.

    • newnodm

      Towards the end of CFL, the light quality on some brands became quite good. I have 3 cfls and one incandescent in my master bath that I have been comparing (in daily moments of contemplation) for years. I can’t say the CFLs have inferior light quality.
      I now buy expensive SORAA leds, so I am picky.

      • Freddy D

        Yep, me too. Halogen and SORAA in my place (I pretty well expunged all standard incandescent out of the place even) Apparently I’m picky too, which caused me to build an understanding of the spectra coming off these bulbs But guess what? For some reason, CFLs gained a pretty widespread poor reputation amongst mainstream people, not claiming to be “picky”. Light and aesthetic things are subtle and most people can’t really articulate why one house or apartment “seems nicer” than another, but the preference is real. There’s a reason why professional lighting designers have used halogen for decades for applications where aesthetics matter and only with the latest and high-end LEDs are now moving on.

        As a side-note, LED color quality was crap in the beginning, and I think it was Steven Chu who required “high efficacy” lamps to hit a certain CRI criteria, including the R9 red rendering. It was this requirement which drove LEDs to get very good in the last several years.

        Not only must we listen carefully, we must observe for clues of preferences that people can’t even articulate.

        • GCO

          CFLs only gained a subpar reputation among some of the US population because of two things IMHO:
          – some of the media *cough*FauxNews*cough* bashing them at every opportunity
          – people insisting on buying the absolute cheapest ones, somehow expecting good results. Like getting the lowest-cost vehicle and wondering why it doesn’t accelerate and handle as well as a sportscar…
          Quality bulbs, from reputable brands, do last and produce high-quality light. Same today with LEDs.

          Btw, pro/retail lighting has used a lot of other technologies (specialized fluorescent, white SON, etc), as incandescent, beside the obvious energy usage issue, is limited to low color temperatures (~3000 K for standard halogen).

  • thinkmorebelieveless

    When will today’s solar PV panels go the way of the CFL ? They both share the attributes of being ugly, laced with toxic substances, and have recycling issues.

    • Ronald Brakels

      I have a silicon solar cell right here in front of me. Just what toxic substances do you think are in it? I’ll tell you if you are right or not.

      • Freddy D

        A CFL broken in an landfill yields liquid and vaporized mercury readily moving around into the atmosphere and wherever liquids go off the landfill. Isn’t a silicon solar cell essentially like a piece of glass, where the substances are pretty well immobilized? Different story for thin films, which are more often deployed in utility scale, thus giving greater degree of control of how they’re handled at end of life.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Silicon solar cells are pretty stable, but there is usually nothing particularly toxic in them. While I don’t recommend it, you could grind up a typical silicon cell and eat it without ill effect. Typical doping agents are phosphorus and boron and both of these are esential nutrients. And if you’ve ever dropped your ice cream at the beach you’ll know that sand passes through people without it being digested, so one might have to eat a solar farm worth of solar cells to get a fatal dose of boron.

        • GCO

          Red herring. With the amount of electricity still coming from coal in the US, CFLs, even if disposed of improperly, cause far less mercury to be released than incandescent lighting.

          • Otis11

            Thank you! Finally, someone else who knows their facts!

      • Andre Needham

        I thumbed up your comment, then started thinking about the solder on the back of the cells. Is it silver solder, or tin/silver, tin/lead? I assume due to RoHS requirements tin/lead solder isn’t used any more but it may have been in the past? A quick Google search didn’t give a clear answer.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Lead in solder was phased out a fair while ago for non-critical applications, so there are not going to be many solar panels around that still have it since they have only been produced in large amounts recently. (And also modern solar panels would use much less solder in total, thanks to more efficient manufacturing.)

      • thinkmorebelieveless

        I have read that the cells contain cadmium, selenium, lead solder, and other toxic metals

        • Otis11

          cadmium and selenium are in some thin-film technologies. Lead solder violates RoHS compliance so that doesn’t happen in US or Europe.

          Some PV technologies have some heavy-metals, but most are very stable so not an issue. Silicon solar cells typically don’t have any toxic materials to my knowledge…

          • thinkmorebelieveless

            What percent of total solar PV cells are made in the US or Europe ? I also read that approx. 80% of solar PV cells come from China or other Asian countries so can/do these sources use lead solder or other toxic metals ?
            I am not trying to be critical of solar PV, I am looking forward to solar PV cells as benign and efficient as LEDs

          • Ronald Brakels

            Generally standards have to be met if goods are to be imported from other countries. Including standards on lead. For example, Australia used to ban the importation of certain toys for containing lead from that huge industrial nation that has dragged its feet on eliminating everything from lead to asbestos – the United States. After the US came to its senses on lead – which was probably hard to do after being exposed to so much of it – I thought it was quite cheeky how they got upset at China for their having lead in toys. Cheeky, but justified. That lead is dangerous stuff.

          • super390

            Remember that under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, countries that get too far ahead on environmental protection standards might get sued by foreign corporations. The only way governments can now move ahead on standards is in unison and that’s a formula for paralysis.

          • Bob_Wallace


          • Otis11

            Absolutely no worries! Glad to help where I can.

            To my understanding, since the panels being imported to these markets are not the final product themselves, but rather are installed in a system which is sold as the product, they must all be certified as RoHS compliant regardless of the country of origin. Some panel manufacturers may chose not to be RoHS compliant, but then they are limiting their market to Asia, Africa and South America – and even there, standards are increasing. (See Administration of the Control and Electronic Information Products – nicknames ‘China RoHS’).

            You can also see the RoHS symbol on most product documentation you buy, even in Chinese products. I’m not 100% sure on how it applies to imports that are sold directly to consumers as final products, however. Hopefully someone else can chime in?

          • Bob_Wallace

            The cadmium in solar panels is bonded to telluride to create CaTe.

            ” cadmium telluride solar panels pose little environmental or health risk. Firstly, the layer used is so thin that it contains less cadmium per square metre than normal galvanised roof sheeting. Secondly, the CdTe solar panels are enclosed on both sides (front and rear) between glass sheets. Test have confirmed that should they be put inside a fire, the minute amount of cadmium is absorbed in the molten glass.”

            “Detailed studies have confirmed that coal generated electricity causes several hundred times the cadmium exposure (per kWh of electricity generated) as electricity from CdTe PV panels. And this does not even include the more serious exposure to much more toxic mercury (which is also chemically similar to cadmium) caused by coal fired electricity.”


          • Otis11

            That’s what I was looking for! Thank you!

        • Ronald Brakels

          Okay, you need to read some more. See what Otis11 wrote.

          There are thin film solar cells that contain cadmium, and I don’t recommend eating those ones, but you are very unlikely to be exposed to cadmium from them. The main source of human exposure to cadmium is from burning coal, so producing solar cells, whether they contain cadmium or not, is an effective way of reducing human exposure to it.

  • ROBwithaB

    CFLs were always a bit of a grudge purchase for me.
    “I know I’m kinda saving the world a little, but that weird grey light makes it feel like I’m in a hospital. The psych ward, in particular.”

    Might not have been completely the fault of the lights, of course…

  • JamesWimberley

    Lovins’ wise point is in Homer: “Dear to us ever are music and feasting and the dance, the warm bath and love and sleep”. Not to mention Adam Smith’s self-interested butcher and baker.

  • jonesey

    Half of all sockets by 2020? Most of my current CFLs will still be going strong. I haven’t replaced a light bulb in over a year.

  • evfan

    We switched to CFLs in the 1990’s. The first ones cost about $20 each and promised a long life, which did not happen for us. But the CFLs got better and better over time. Even if GE stops making them today, the ones currently installed still have a lot of life left in them.

  • Jamset

    What is shrink-wrap window insulation?

    • Ronald Brakels

      It is American temporary insulation they put on their windows at the start of winter and take off when the wheather turns warm. A hair dryer is involved in applying it. It’s kind of like how people in normal countries put bubble wrap on their windows when it gets cold.

      • jonesey

        Except that you can still see out the window when you put the shrink-wrap on. They are most useful on terrible 1970s-era single-pane aluminum windows that were popular when energy was dirt-cheap, just before the gas (petrol) lines (queues) appeared and energy efficiency became a thing Americans and the US government started to pay attention to.

        For people who prefer a visual image over words, these junk windows were made when the yellow line was at its peak in my favorite energy-related graph ever:

        • Ronald Brakels

          Single-pane aluminium frame windows? We have a word we use to describe them in Australia – futuristic.

          • ROBwithaB

            Wow. Those guys have… Aluminium Windows?
            Cool !

          • Ronald Brakels

            We have wood window frames, and for those hoity toity people who live in suburbs where they have actually built something new since the 1970s, we have aluminium frame windows. I must admit I’m having a really hard time imagining what kind of space age advancements beyond that they must have in America and Europe.

            But one wouldn’t expect Australia to have advanced window technology. We only just discovered insulation this century. Oh sure, we had ceiling batts before that, but here that’s actually a colony of bats you keep in your roof space to warm your house in winter.

          • Brent Jatko


          • ROBwithaB

            In South Africa, we’re still building lots of houses with steel window frames.
            They’re cheap.

          • Otis11

            My literally-brand-new apartment has great insulation and double pane windows – with aluminum frames. Seriously.

            Everything else in this place is very well insulated, but I’d bet I lose more heat through those frames than through the entire rest of my apartment… Such a fail.

          • GCO

            Are you sure the whole window frame is aluminum?
            I’ve seen lots of aluminum-clad ones, and non-rusting metals seem a good choice for something meant to withstand punishing UVs and temperature swings for decades.
            From the complete absence of condensation on them though, the core was obviously a much more insulating material, as it should be.

          • Otis11

            Well, I don’t know for sure… the thing I do know is that the window is barely cooler than air temperature at night while the aluminum frame is cold. That would imply that, whatever it is, it’s conducting heat pretty efficiently outside…

            Fortunately for me it’s already warming up here… and I move out before next winter. (I was the first resident when it opened last August, but alas, time to move on…)

          • Philip W

            Have you used a thermometer? Aluminium feels colder than it actually is. (because it moves heat away from your hand so fast)

          • Otis11

            Fair point – and I have not. The aluminum does feel warmer on a mild day, though, even when it’s the same temperature indoors. (I have a thermometer on my desk right by the window)

            That would imply it was leaking heat, would it not?

          • newnodm

            Apparently they have been using stretched koala skins to cover house openings…….

          • Ronald Brakels

            Don’t be silly! If you block the holes in the walls how will the spiders get inside when it rains?

          • super390

            We finally got that transparent aluminum from when the Enterprise crew brought it back in time in Star Trek IV.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Don’t tell Scotty, but we’ve actually been able to make transparent aluminium (Al2O3) since 1902. Australia is the largest producer of naturally occurring transparent aluminium, or sapphire, as it is usually called. And apparently they were going to use transparent aluminium for iphone screens, but they went for gorilla glass instead.

  • Mike Dill

    I almost hate to mention that insulation is almost more important than how you light up your life. Unfortunately is is initially expensive, and just sits there forgotten and saves you money. Not glamorous.

    • Freddy D

      Well worth mentioning that net-zero insulation standards could be 1000 times more impactful than CFLs in combatting climate change. Said differently, if every light on the planet were high efficiency, it would do little toward mitigating climate changes if we continue to leave building insulation unaddressed. It’s sorely under reported and under promoted.

      • neroden

        Yeah, I have a mostly superinsulated house. I keep it at 80F all winter, when it’s 0F outdoors, and my heating bill is about $100 in January.

        People really don’t know what you can do with a superinsulated retrofit.

  • Coley

    Nice article, CFLs were the first real,widespread opportunity, for ordinary people to feel they could ‘do something’

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