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Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

How many energy efficiency experts does it take to change a light bulb?

Using energy more efficiently is by all accounts the cheapest, fastest and cleanest road to meeting the nation’s energy and climate goals. Plenty of technology is already available to reduce energy use dramatically. Study after study shows that investing in efficiency is a moneymaker. And using less energy means using less coal and oil now, rather than waiting to build cleaner power plants and produce more electric cars. Little wonder, then, that the failure to take advantage of the efficiency opportunity to its fullest has long been the greatest frustration of energy policy makers.

Little wonder, that is, until you try to do it. Our kitchen has nine ceiling lights that are on almost all day, so replacing them with efficient compact fluorescent lights – CFLs – seemed a no-brainer. All that I had to do was find a CFL that had the same brightness and color as the bad old incandescent bulbs.

Now, I know something about this stuff, and I ran a pretty intensive search for exactly the right CFL. Despite sifting through reams of data on lumens and Kelvin temperatures — no luck. Even worse, my potential energy saving bonanza slid into an economic loss as I bought and rejected a parade of CFLs that made the kitchen look like an operating room. About to give up before going further into debt to save energy, I happened to see in a local hardware store a CFL in a package reading, in effect, “This CFL exactly replaces the bulb you’re trying to get rid of.” And it did. The problem, it turned out, was not with technology but with communication.

Tom Dietz, a professor at Michigan State University, and his colleagues have given this problem serious thought. Their research into why people don’t take advantage of profitable energy efficiency recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His article makes two points that energy policy makers should heed.

First, changing behavior is hard if it involves changing habits. People don’t want to move out of their comfort zone and so their thermostat remains fixed. Nor do they enjoy sacrificing the freedom to drive when and where they want, often alone and maybe in the family SUV. What’s going on here, of course, is that it’s not just energy that we buy, it’s the services energy provides — things like comfort, convenience and mobility. That’s where the true value to us lies. Dietz thus makes the profound but perfectly reasonable observation that the fastest way to get people to become more energy efficient is to provide products that supply the same level of service while using less energy.

And second, the easier it is to make a change, the more likely folks will do it. In the example of my CFL experience, detailed technical specifications didn’t help, but telling me in plain English that this CFL would provide the same kitchen lighting as my old bulbs did help. An Energy Star label also helps. It tells customers that they can choose their desired appliance features knowing they will also save energy.

Investing in something like a new air conditioning system is more expensive and more complicated than buying a different bulb or small appliance, but the principle is the same. Homeowners will be perfectly happy to buy a modern system that saves energy as long as they don’t have to sacrifice comfort. The technology is readily available, but someone needs to guide homeowners through the unfamiliar steps of finding the best unit for their needs — including financial incentives to purchase a more efficient system, assurance of quality and reliability, and easy access to the necessary products and services.

Tackling energy efficiency with these principles in mind can make a big difference. Dietz and his co-authors point out that homeowners make energy decisions that determine almost 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. They examined 17 energy efficiency actions (like buying a new air conditioner or more efficient appliance) that could reduce these emissions by as much as 40 percent. Achieving the full 40 percent reduction would require serious behavior change, but Dietz calculates that half of this potential could be realized without modifying lifestyle – just by making the changes easier to do. That would be a great start on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s a feasible goal for the near term.

Of course, our longer term goal for energy efficiency should be more ambitious, but attaining it will mean learning to overcome more entrenched resistance to change. Energy policy makers are learning that behavior matters. It’s a development that’s welcome, if long overdue.

Robert Fri is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies natural resource and environmental issues. He has served as director of the National Museum of Natural History, president of Resources for the Future, and deputy administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. Read his full bio.


  • Marina E.

    These CFL bulbs contain mercury and are highly toxic. see this video

  • Sparkynot

    As much as we liked the idea of using the CFLs, disposal is a huge problem. Our regular trash pickup will not allow CFLs. We have to drive 20 minutes one way to a drop off location. The trade off in energy savings….not so good.

  • Chris Rapier

    Marina, that video doesn’t actually have any science in it. The ‘scientist’ they talked to Marina Havas is not a well respected researcher and has very few peer-reviewed publications to her name. The experiences she has run are generally flawed and unrepeatable. As such, I’d not listen to a thin she has to say. The claims about EMF radiation she’s making have never been shown to be true – even after 500 studies have been conducted on exactly this question. Unless you are positing that there is a vast conspiracy among the world’s scientists and that this woman is the single lone voice of truth out there then I think it’s safe to dismiss her. Of course, it’s a great plot for a movie but this isn’t the movies.

  • David Webb

    Ultimately the answer to the problems with the CFL’s will be replacing them with LED’s. That technology isn’t quite ready yet though. Uses are limited and initial costs high; but I think the LED’s will be the lighting technoolgy that ultimately replaces incandescent bulbs.

  • Cdterry426

    I hear a lot of blather these days about the government wanting to change my behavior via candy-assed back door tactics like taxes and public policy; frankly I’m getting pretty pissed. Think you can change my behavior? Come to 1823 Haynes Drive, Murfreesboro, Tn and give it a try. I guran-damn-tee you will leave a change person! You can take my incandescent bulb when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. I am stocking up.

  • Christopher Carpentieri

    Cdterry, noöne’s trying to pry your outdated lightbulbs from your fingers. You’re free to stock up on them, and continue spending more on electricity. But why would you?
    And how are taxes and public policy back-door?

  • entrepreneur indiana

    OK for a bulb at say $5.00 over a bulb lasting 1/5 as long but costing only $.50, one has to save (.50×5=2.50) or $2.50 to break even. Cost of a kilowatt at $.10 means 1000 watts of useage cost you $.10 for an hour. Say you use a 60 watt light bulb. (1000 / 60 = 16) so 16 hours of use, cost you $.10. Now say a new florescent uses 20 watts, (1000 / 20 = 50) so 50 hours of use cost you $.10. To have a break even one divides $2.50 by $.10, or 25 and then multiplies by the 16 and 50 to have a comparison. If you operate incadescent you will pay the same for 400 hours while you would get 1250 hours when buying the florescent for the same money. Spending more is justified if you leave your lights on all the time, accumulating hours, but if you turn them off and have room sensors, the hours will not accumulate and savings will be very small.

  • entrepreneur indiana

    Look at the good side, the cost of incadescent has went down. Since the spectrum of light is better with
    both blue and red represented, and incadescents are strong in red while florescents are strong in blue, a 50/50 mix is more pleasing light. I really don’t see incadescent being outlawed…but just in case keep your gun beside your bed. By that time I think there will be bigger problems, like financial collapse.

  • Richard Patterson

    They thought of it in the nineteenth century. Splitting the minerals beneath the ground from the surface of the ground. Both are bought and sold separately. Such a strange arrangement would never have happened, had the great robber barrens of that century not twisted legal arms to make it happen. Then in the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, all mortgages became equal before the eyes of the very smart financial engineers. Sure, the conditions of the mortgage and the people backing them are exactly alike, AAA. No arms had to be twisted either, just a few winks, nods and head turns and a lot of z’s at the SEC. Now, if I can measure the total cost of your food refrigeration services, build in a refrigeration arrangement that is 95% more efficient than the appliance and its energy consumption, that now inhabits your kitchen, basement and garage, couldn’t I make it very easy for you to pay your refrigeration services bill each month, and make a profit on the displaced energy demand? No. I’m not a robber barren or a financial engineer, or even an electrician. “Displaced energy demand” is not a thinkable concept. I tried writing a Wikipedia article about “energy demand management” and got railroaded out of town by somebody who didn’t think I could document and substantiate my claims. Culture changes very, very slowly, unless I have the power to get your attention and shake your shoulder until you wake up. But, as much as I dream to change things with words, I’m just an ordinary schmuck, dreaming extraordinary things as I turn my glassy eyed stare to the snow flakes dancing with the white pine bows beyond.

  • Richard Patterson

    There are millions or billions of fluorescent tubes that have been in use for decades that contain plenty of mercury. Where was your protest back it 1960, when tube-style fluorescent lamps began to accelerate in sales wildly? So you can’t find a safe eight cubic inch place in your domicile to store a CFL until it becomes more readily and handily recyclable.