A Brighter Idea: The Untold Story of the CFL (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a three-part series of the behind-the-scenes story of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL). A Brighter Idea: The Untold Story of the CFL, originally featured in the October 2012 issue of Electricity Journal, is a historical review that illustrates the unprecedented efforts taken by industry, government and other groups to bring CFLs into homes and businesses across the country. Spanning several decades and overcoming multiple obstacles, this accomplishment represents a modern success story: saving consumers money, reducing costs for utilities, growing the economy, and protecting the environment.

The first part of The Untold Story of the CFL discusses the early development of this lighting innovation and the efforts to bring the CFL to capacity to compete in the market:

I. A New Kind of Lightbulb

When Phillips released the Model SL lightbulb in 1980, it was significantly different from the incandescent bulbs used for the previous century: It used far less energy, generated less heat, and lasted much longer.

But as the first compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) on the market, the Model SL sold for at least $12 (an inflation-adjusted $30 today)1 – more than 16 times the price of a standard 100-watt bulb at that time. With prices as high as $35 in the mid-1980s,2 it took an unprecedented collaborative and innovative effort to finally bring the revolutionary more energy-efficient CFL into homes across the country over a quarter-century later.

Although CFLs represent a modern success story – saving consumers money, reducing costs for utilities, growing the economy, and protecting the environment – the early CFLs were not only expensive, they were too big and heavy for many lamps. They flickered and took a painfully long time to light up. And they were competing against a lightbulb that was so used and useful, that it had become the symbol for a brighter idea in American culture.

Since Edison’s day, the entire market for residential lighting has grown up around the standard incandescent lightbulb. Over the past hundred years, this ‘‘A-line’’ bulb has developed into an inexpensive, reliable mass market product that provides a warm, even light as soon as you flip the switch. Lighting fixtures, sockets, and lamps are all designed to function with a bulb that is the same size, shape, and weight of a standard incandescent bulb.

Consumers, too, are well adapted to this product. Most everyone knows whether they want a bulb with the brightness of a 100-watt bulb or the softer light from a 60-watt bulb, even though they may not have the slightest idea what a watt is. It’s not surprising that people are accustomed to buying this iconic object given that their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents bought remarkably similar lightbulbs in decades past.

Facing one of the most successful mass market products of all time, it seemed unlikely that the expensive, bulky, and balky CFL would thrive. However, early versions of other now-popular consumer products faced similar obstacles. For example, the first personal computers were a long way from the popularity they enjoy today. Like the Phillips SL, the Apple 1 was of limited market potential given the early state of the technology. Both products needed to provide much better value to grow beyond the narrow market of lifetime subscribers to Popular Science.

Without taking away from the accomplishments of the early Silicon Valley pioneers, CFLs faced a far more difficult path to the mass market. While personal computers offered a dazzling array of ever-expanding services and communications and entertainment horizons compared to the electric typewriter it sought to replace, the CFL was – and remains – an alternative to the incandescent lightbulb without obvious and instantly apparent benefits. Hundreds of dollars in annual electric bill savings and cleaner air are no less real and, at least to some, may be of even greater benefit than the latest tablet computer, but to most people a CFL is merely another way to provide light after the sun goes down.

This fundamental difference between the CFL and other early consumer products required new approaches to bring the highly efficient bulbs to the mass market success they enjoy today. In fact, this accomplishment required a novel, decades-long collaborative effort involving manufacturers, utilities, government agencies, and energy efficiency advocates.

II. Bringing the Product to the Market

Beginning in the 1970s, energy planners came to recognize that efficiency improvements could substitute for investments in electricity generation, in many cases at much lower cost. When early CFLs like the Philips SL arrived on the scene, efficiency supporters quickly recognized this new technology created an enormous opportunity: With billions of dollars of investment needed to keep up with the power demanded by lightbulbs, replacing incandescents with CFLs could save consumers and their utilities billions in avoided power plants, fuel costs, and air pollution.

It was equally apparent that CFLs would need to become much more consumer-friendly before they could be developed into a mass market product. But just as Steve Jobs looked at an Apple 1 and saw the iPhone, efficiency visionaries looked at the clunky Phillips SL and saw today’s sleek, bright, reliable technology.

Early efforts to develop the CFL were focused on refining the technology by reducing its size and weight, improving light quality and operational performance, and increasing reliability. Public and private – and more commonly, joint public-private investments in research and development – shepherded the technology along. Performance increased, while both size and manufacturing costs decreased. By the early 1990s, CFLs were recognized as a leading energy-savings opportunity. For example, a California Energy Commission assessment of emerging energy efficiency technologies estimated that CFLs offered potential energy savings equal to more than 3 percent of statewide electricity consumption.3

Twenty years after their introduction, CFLs had improved dramatically. The ungainly and outsized Phillips SL had been replaced with a reliable and lightweight product; the ugly duckling had evolved into a lamp with the sexy – at least to some – curves of a swan. Most importantly CFLs fit most sockets and fixtures, and light quality and reliability were vastly improved – all issues of concern to consumers.

Two initiatives involving the U.S. Department of Energy helped contribute to these advances. In 1999, DOE worked with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to encourage the introduction and sales of smaller, affordable high-quality CFLs that would fit most light fixtures with a ‘‘sub-CFL’’ technology procurement project primarily aimed at volume purchasers like multi-family housing owners and federal agencies. The result was the spiral-shaped bulbs of today and a drop in the 1999 retail sales price of a short 15-watt bulb to as little as $6.99 by August 2001.

Meanwhile, DOE launched an Energy Star specification for CFL bulbs that established standards for energy efficiency, quality and performance, mercury limits, and required the bulbs be tested by an accredited laboratory and offer a two-year warranty. Shortly thereafter, the Program for the Evaluation and Analysis of Residential Lighting (PEARL) was formed in 2000. This watchdog group tested CFLs purchased from retail stores and brought issues to the attention of DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency, helping to ensure consistent high quality and leading to the initiation of a federal quality assurance testing program for Energy Star lighting.

Even with these enhancements, CFL sales were still quite limited – comprising only 1 percent of the market in California and even less across the United States.4 Although by the year 2000 personal computers were so pervasive that ‘‘Y2K’’ was considered a global threat, consumers stubbornly stuck to the lightbulb-buying habits of their parents and grandparents, bypassing CFLs and bringing home incandescents despite the hundreds of dollars in potential annual power bill savings. Efficiency supporters had brought the product to the market, but were forced to recognize that in order to be successful, they had to bring the market to the product. 


1. Information provided by Philips Electronics North America in June 2012.

2. C. Calwell, C. Granda, L. Gordon and M. Ton, 1999, Lighting the Way to Energy Savings: How Can We Transform Residential Lighting Markets? Vol. 2: Background and Reference, Prepared by Ecos Consulting for Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco.

3. Steve Nadel et al., ACEEE Report, Emerging Technologies to Improve Energy Efficiency in the Residential and Commercial Sectors, prepared for California Energy Commission-sponsored California Conservation Inventory Group, Jan. 1, 1993.

4. RER Residential Market Share Tracking Report, California Lamp Trends, Vol. 1, 2001. 

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