Power Switch

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

From light bulbs to clothes washers, the energy law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in December will change many of the appliances in the average American home.

The incandescent light bulb, invented two centuries ago and perfected and popularized by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s, will become a thing of the past by the middle of the next decade.

The look of the future? The curvaceous compact fluorescent bulbs that recently have become popular and other bulbs featuring light-emitting diodes or other advanced technologies.

The energy law will also bring about important but less noticeable changes in the way clothes washers, dishwashers, boilers and dehumidifiers use energy and water.

The goal is to reduce U.S. electricity use, a major source of greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global climate change. Half of the nation's electricity generation comes from coal-fired plants, which emit carbon dioxide. Moreover, if households cut electricity used for lighting and appliances, it could become easier to introduce electric cars, which could cut oil use without creating the need for a massive, new electricity-generating investment.

Five to 10 percent of residential electricity goes into lighting, making it a prime target for policymakers searching for energy savings. If every American household replaced just one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, the country would conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes and save more than $600 million annually. It would be as if 800,000 cars were taken off the road, according to a Web site maintained by the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cutting down the amount of electricity used for light bulbs makes economic sense for homeowners, too, though most consumers are reluctant to make the switch. "These bulbs will be more expensive, but for a light bulb that you have on a couple of hours a day, the electricity is more expensive than the bulb," said Lowell Ungar, a senior analyst at the Alliance to Save Energy. "It will pay back in a few months."

Compact fluorescent bulbs can screw into existing sockets, and they last many times longer than traditional lights.

Homeowners' reluctance prompted lawmakers to illuminate the path forward. The new energy law says that in 2012, any bulb emitting the amount of light a 100-watt bulb does today must use only 72 watts. In 2014, 40-, 60- and 75-watt bulbs will have to cut energy consumption by similar percentages.

In 2020, the required energy savings become even more stringent, limiting electricity usage to about a quarter of today's incandescent bulbs.

Even before the law, the nation's light-bulb makers had been scrambling to come up with new technologies to meet the standards and the sudden increase in demand for energy-saving bulbs.

General Electric says it has come up with a more efficient incandescent bulb that would meet the intermediate standards to take effect in the next decade, but it hasn't begun selling it.

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