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This column first appeared in print on September 27, 2006 in that day’s issue of the Inter-County Leader.

“Dad!” she said one Sunday morning. “I was going right back up!”

“I know,” I said, my head thrust in the refrigerator. “But every second counts. Every penny adds up. You have to turn the lights off when you leave your room . . . Yes, every second . . .Yes the refrigerator light too . . . Um, no, that’s different . . . I can stand as long as I want with the door open looking for salsa . . . Because I’m the dad . . .No, mostly I do see things that are right in front of me . . . Well sometimes life isn’t fair . . . When you have your own house and bills . . .”

Huffing. Eye rolling. A “Whatever.” Finally (thankfully) she tromped off.

Feeling somehow that I’d just lost a must-win, I turned back to the ‘fridge. I knew it was in there somewhere.

I have to admit, she’s much better at this than I ever was. At that age, my only debate tactic was denial.

“Christopher, did you leave the lights on upstairs?”

“No.”

“Christopher . . . don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not. I didn’t. I swear!”

“You’re grounded.”

“Okay.”

But energy conservation is a battle I’m not about to concede. As parents, it’s our sacred duty to instill the “turn-off-lights” value in our children. The strength of our nation depends on this. Our very heritage is at stake. It links generations. If this isn’t a “family value” I don’t know what is.

With energy costs soaring and demand on foreign oil a political hot button, the “lights-off” value is more important than ever . . . today. Tomorrow . . . not so much.

Last year, Americans bought 2 billion light bulbs, roughly18 per household. Bulbs are cheap, about 50 cents apiece, so collectively; we spent $1 billion on “hot wires in bottles”, as they’re called in the trade.

Rewind to 1980 when a niche product called a compact fluorescent (CFL), or “swirl” was introduced. This early model hummed, mustered only a weak bluish or pinkish light, and cost about $25. Still, they lasted longer and paid for themselves in energy savings.

images.jpgSwirls have changed since then. The other day I picked up a 3-pack for $7.58 ($2.52 a bulb). They work great and eliminate my future need of at least 24 regular bulbs.

Additionally, a $2.52 swirl, lit 4 hours a day, actually pays for itself in energy savings in less than 5 months. In fact, according to the packaging on the bulb, GE promises you will save at least $38 on your electric bills over the life of one CFL.

According to a recent article in Fast Company (Fishman, Sept 2006), last year’s sales of CFLs were a modest 5% of the total market–100 million. This year, that number will double because Wal Mart, the king of scale, has decided to actually drive sales, featuring swirls at eye level on the shelves and creating awareness with a “light bulb education center” in every store. Their goal: sell one swirl to every regular Wal Mart customer—all 100 million of them.

Why is that significant? Because a CFL uses only 13 watts to produce the same light as a traditional 60-watt bulb, swapping just one (100 million times) saves enough energy to eliminate 2 power plants. In other words, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. In terms of greenhouse gasses, that’s like taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

That’s just one light bulb. What if every customer bought 2 bulbs? I already have ten scattered around my house. A typical American house has between 50 and 100 bulb outlets. The net implications of this technology coupled with Wal Mart’s scale are staggering.

David Goldstein, a PhD physicist, MacArthur Genius Fellow, and senior energy scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it this way: “This could be just what the world’s been waiting for, for the last 20 years.”

The problem is that if this information falls into the wrong hands, it can easily be used against me. Giving up the “turn-off-lights” value would only take us one step closer to anarchy. Next they’ll say 20-minute showers are fine, or that it’s okay to leave the refrigerator door open even when you’re not looking for salsa.

Copyright © 2006 by Chris Wondra. All Rights Reserved.

1. Fishman, Charles (2006, September) Fast Company, How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take To Change the World? One. And you’re Looking At It., 74-83.


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Update: Seth Goodin is creating even more awareness with a challenge to bloggers to write about swirls. Which is ultra cool because he gets a ton of traffic.

Ask me today (1/4/07) which published column I’m most proud of, it’s this one. I can’t even count anymore how many people have stopped to talk to me specifically about CFls, but more inspiring for me are the actual number of lightbulbs people have bought after specifically reading my column.

The power of the pen, is still very much alive. And it thrills me to no end.