The Problem: Even brilliant solutions can fall flat in the marketplace. Twenty-five years ago, engineers at the Dutch company Royal Philips Electronics designed a better lightbulb that held out the wondrous promise of saving billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity. The compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL, was a smaller version of the standard fluorescent light but worked the same way: Current flowing through glass tubes filled with gas created ultraviolet light, which in turn excited the phosphorescent coating on the tube, emitting visible light. CFLs last up to 10 times longer and generate 90 percent less heat, allowing them to use less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. But their higher cost, more diffuse light (incandescent bulbs concentrate the light from a single point, making them appear brighter), and unconventional tubular shape kept the public away. By mid-2000, CFLs made up only 0.5 percent of lighting sales in the United States.
The Solution: Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory plotted to revive the CFL with a shrewd business plan. In 1999 they developed specifications for what they called "subcompact" fluorescent lamps, which are substantially smaller than the previous generation of CFLs and designed to fit in most fixtures made for incandescent lamps. But the Lab wisely decided first to line up some customers: a group of lighting retailers, large apartment complexes, and government agencies that agreed to buy the subcompacts in bulk if a manufacturer would develop and produce them. Several small bulb-makers, seeing a chance to out-compete their larger rivals, did just that.
The plan worked: By early 2001 the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory program had sold 2.5 million CFLs -- twice its original target. California's 2001 energy crisis increased the demand, as utilities desperate to reduce the burden on their overloaded systems offered subsidies for conservation technologies. By the end of 2001, CFL purchases had quadrupled to 2.1 percent of the retail lightbulb market nationwide.
Finally convinced that the bulbs could sell, major lighting manufacturers such as Osram-Sylvania and General Electric created their own subcompacts. Now the bulbs, along with other recent CFL innovations -- such as fluorescent torchiere lamps, which replace the fire-prone standup halogen lamps that are a staple in college dorm rooms -- are available in retail stores around the country, including large chains such as Costco and Wal-Mart. (Look for the Energy Star label and the curled tube shape.) According to the EPA, if every household in the United States swapped one lightbulb for a CFL, the reduction in pollution caused by lower electricity demand would be equivalent to removing a million cars from the road.