Bulb brilliance at Wal-Mart as CFLs go mainstream

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread approval of the energy-efficient light bulbs is price, and the big-box company is working on that.

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While governments in Australia and Britain are mandating a changeover to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), the United States appears to be doing it free-market style. Wal-Mart just announced it will sell its own low-cost house brand of CFL lights, while also trumpeting that it had already reached its goal of selling 100 million of the swirly, energy-efficient bulbs this year.

But that's just the beginning: From laundry detergent to DVDs, toothpaste to vacuum cleaners, the world's biggest retailer seems committed to "going green" product by product. In the process, it's beginning to reverse some of the bad publicity it has received over selling cheap goods from China and allegations of labor abuses.

It's won plaudits from global-warming activist Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton, who invited Wal-Mart's CEO to the high-profile Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York last week. The speculation now centers on whether Wal-Mart's massive buying influence on suppliers will spread the fight against global warming beyond the granola-crunching set to the minivan masses.

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Environmental groups are expressing cautious optimism, according to a story in BusinessWeek. Many remain suspicious that the move is no more than a public-relations ploy. But even the "greenest of the greens," the article reports, concede that with $350 billion in yearly sales, Wal-Mart has the potential to change the marketplace. But will it be willing to cut off suppliers that refuse to cooperate? That remains to be seen.

Says Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace:

"Wal-Mart has the power to coax suppliers into changing. They're taking on a daunting task, which is pretty cool."

In promoting its CFL program, Wal-Mart offered some eye-popping statistics last year: Nearly 20 percent of all home electric costs stem from lighting, it said, and changing a single conventional 60-watt bulb to a 13-watt CFL saves an average of $30 in electric costs over its lifetime. Because it will last so much longer than a conventional bulb, a CFL will also "prevent 10 conventional bulbs from being produced, transported, and discarded in a landfill; 220 lbs. of coal from being burned; and 450 lbs. of greenhouse gases from reaching the air."

Andy Ruben, Wal-Mart's vice president of corporate strategy and sustainability, added on its website:

"Over the life of those [100 million] bulbs, $3 billion can be saved in electrical costs and 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from entering our atmosphere. This change is comparable to taking 700,000 cars off the road, or powering 450,000 single-family homes."

CFLs contain tiny amounts of mercury, a toxic element, which has caused concerns that they might be hazardous in homes. But their net effect is to reduce the total amount of mercury emitted in the environment, explains a story in the Akron Beacon-Journal:

"... [I]t's important to factor in the mercury that coal-fired power plants emit in producing the electricity to power our light bulbs. In making the electricity to power a CFL over its lifetime, a plant would release 3.3 milligrams of mercury, but it would emit 13.6 milligrams over that same period to power incandescent bulbs, the [federal government's] Energy Star program says. Add the amount of mercury contained in the CFL to the amount released in producing the power, and it's still only 61 percent of the mercury attributable to [conventional] incandescent bulbs."

The bulbs should be treated as hazardous waste and not tossed into the trash, the article concludes.

Wal-Mart is working with its suppliers, including General Electric, to cut the mercury content in its brand of CFL bulbs, according to Reuters. It's also doing something it's done for a long time: undercutting its competitors' prices by selling Wal-Mart-brand CFL four-packs at the same price as a brand-name three-pack. More than safety concerns, the biggest hurdle to wider consumer acceptance is the price of CFL bulbs, which cost much more up front than conventional bulbs, even though consumers save money in the long run through energy savings.

Duke Energy has begun a pilot program in the Cincinnati area offering coupons worth $3 off a package of CFL bulbs at Wal-Mart, lowering the price to $1.50 per bulb, according to a story in the Cincinnati Inquirer. At Clinton's meeting last week, Duke and seven other electric utilities representing 20 million customers in 22 states pledged to increase their spending on energy-efficiency programs by $500 million to $1.5 billion in the next few years through regulatory reforms and approvals.

The effect over the next 10 years would be equal to removing 6 million cars from the nation's roads, according to the article. Clinton, it reported, applauded the effort, calling it "a huge deal in the way we approach the challenge of climate change."

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