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Business and Economy

Lights Out for CFLs — Efficiency Maine Switching Off Subsidy in Favor of LEDs

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Fred Bever
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MPBN
Portland Aubuchon Hardware manager Daniel Furst says customers are turning away from compact fluorescents in favor of LEDs.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs were once all the rage, promoted as an energy-efficient way to light homes and businesses. But those spiral-shaped CFLs may be fading into history. Light-emitting diodes are the coming thing now as states drop incentives for CFL purchases and invest in LEDs instead.

Ten years ago, state energy efficiency programs were spending millions of dollars — collected from consumers through their electricity bills — to promote the use of CFLs. More efficient than Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulb, CFLs also cost more, so states provided financial incentives to bring down the price.

They also mounted media marketing campaigns like a television spot that aired in Maine featuring animated talking bulbs.

Weird-looking or not, CFLs did indeed save households real money by using less electricity to produce the same light levels as ordinary bulbs. That’s why Efficiency Maine has spent as much as $5 million a year to help get them into Maine homes and businesses.

“In the last five years, Efficiency Maine’s programs have promoted just more than 11 million high-efficiency light bulbs. We estimate they are saving — they will save — more than $200 million over the full lifetime,” says Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. (He notes that starting in 2014, a small portion of those incentivized bulbs were, in fact, LEDs.)

Stoddard says the strategy has also reduced overall demand for electricity and the need to build expensive new generation and transmission capacity. And it has cut down on pollution from electricity generation.

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Credit National Electrical Manufacturers Association
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National Electrical Manufacturers Association

By late 2015, nearly half of all lightbulbs sold in the U.S. were CFLs. And then they began dropping, rapidly, to below 25 percent market share this March. Stoddard says their time in the sun may be passing.

“CFLs have had their day, and it was a good run,” he says. “They did yeoman’s work but it is time to shift to a better technology.”

There’s a new bulb on the block — even-more-efficient LEDs. One look at the shelves at Aubuchon Hardware in Portland and you can see the shift in action.

“Some are being moved in, some are being moved out, some are being overtaken. For the most part the LEDs now are moving in, and the compact fluorescents are moving out,” says store manager Daniel Furst. He adds that in just two years LEDs have come to dominate the efficiency section.

Although LEDs are relatively costly to make, manufacturers are pushing wholesale prices down quickly, while at retail in Maine, many LEDs now benefit from an Efficiency Maine subsidy that gets their price to $10 and less.

Furst and other retailers say LEDs are proving an easier sell than CFLs, which have always had their challenges.

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Credit smarterhouse.org
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smarterhouse.org

“The [CFL] bulbs don’t turn on fast,” he says. “They’re slow. They warm up and then, ‘boom,’ they go on. A lot of people don’t like that. When you walk into a room you want a light right away so they can see. So those don’t sell very good. A lot of people want the LED because they’re brighter, they turn on faster, they last longer.”

High-end LEDs can last as long as two decades. They’re easier to handle and recycle, too. CFLs depend on mercury vapor, which makes them more vulnerable to breakage and failure than solid-state LEDs — and a potential health hazard.

Efficiency Maine had planned to continue to promote CFL sales into next year and beyond, but regulators suggested focusing just on LEDs instead. So beginning next month, CFL incentives will no longer be offered.

Efficiency Maine’s Michael Stoddard says the goal is to make LEDs competitive with halogen bulbs - which, while cheap and more like traditional incandescents, are far less efficient than LEDs and don’t last nearly as long.

“If you can move the price with financial incentives down so that it’s very close, people will buy a lot of them. So that’s where we’re going to put our money,” Stoddard says.

It’s a trend being seen at efficiency programs around the nation. Vermont plans to drop CFL incentives soon. And some manufacturers are making their own moves — GE Lighting announced in February that it will soon stop making CFLs altogether.