04/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Si Se Puede: Every Chilean Can (and Does) Screw in a Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb

There is no cleaner, cheaper or more secure energy than the energy we don't use. And much has been written about the potential savings from replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFL). The EU has eliminated the sale of incandescent bulbs in many of its member countries. Yet here in the US, their rate of market penetration, while improving, remains slow. Why? Price seems to be the biggest obstacle, as CFLs cost 3-5 times more than a comparable incandescent bulb, although they are far more energy efficient and last over ten times as long. Consumers complain about the quality and color of the light, and remain skeptical about the energy savings and green benefits of the product.

Meanwhile, in Chile, a new governmental energy efficiency program focused upon increasing the use of compact fluorescents has reduced residential electricity consumption in Chile by more than 20%. That is not a typo-twenty percent. How did they do it-simple, they gave the bulbs away!! Consumers in lower income brackets received a free CFL for every incandescent bulb they turned in to their local utility, while those in higher brackets were able to purchase CFLs at cost.

Every utility executive I spoke with pointed to the new CFL program as the sole or primary driver of this extraordinary savings. Economic growth in Chile in 2008 was a relatively robust 3.4 percent, so clearly the reduction in electricity use was not due to an economic slowdown or recession.

Thanks to this program, there are now over 16 million CFLs in use in Chile, or approximately one per inhabitant. Assuming a replaced 60 watt incandescent bulb replaced by an equivalent CFL and used six hours per day, that's an annual energy savings of 1.6 billion kilowatt hours per year-or enough to shut down (or not construct new) a 300 MW baseload coal facility. And while the bulbs cost around $20 million, the new plant would cost about $600 million.

Imagine a similar program in the US, population 300 million, each replacing one incandescent bulb with a CFL. We would save 30 billion kilowatt hours per year, or about 5000 MW of dirty baseload capacity. That's almost $10 billion in new plants that wouldn't need to be built and emissions avoided. And given that US uses far more light bulbs per person that does Chile, a penetration rate of 2, 3 or 5 bulbs per person should be easily achievable. And many of us leave our lights on for more than six hours per day, so the US savings could be $50 billion or more in foregone plants, not to mention the emissions from their operation. That's enough electricity to serve the residential needs of around 12 million households, or around 30 million people.

The cleanest, greenest, cheapest and most secure energy is the energy we don't use. The empirical evidence from Chile is overwhelming and proves the savings. We can and must implement a program to put CFLs in every household -- yes we can!