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A Bright Idea to Cut Carbon Emissions

05/26/2015 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

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By Don Willlmott

Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

You've probably spent a significant portion of your life beneath harsh soul-crushing fluorescent lighting in school, in the office, in the supermarket... everywhere. Why? It's simply because fluorescent bulbs are so much more efficient than their incandescent cousins. But in this day and age, we're all taking a much harder look at what "efficient" truly means. Are fluorescent bulbs efficient enough?

There's apparently plenty of room for improvement, which is why the U.S. Department of Energy created new standards for fluorescents at the end of last year that the agency predicts will lower electric bills across the country by $15 billion through 2030.

Fluorescent lighting accounts for as much as 70 percent of the total electricity consumed by lighting in commercial and industrial buildings. There are about 2.5 billion fluorescent bulbs installed in the U.S., and assuming they average three feet in length, then they add up to 1.4 million miles of tubes. Imagine six long buzzing and blinking bulbs glowing in the dark as they reach from here to the Moon.

The "General Service Fluorescent Lamps" standards, which will go into effect at the beginning of 2018, require that new fluorescents be four percent more efficient than those on the market today (producing a minimum output of 92 lumens per watt, to be specific), and that they be 23 percent more efficient than those sold before 2012.

As it turns out, the DOE has been on a bit of a regulatory tear lately. In 2014, it focused its attention not only on fluorescents but also on everything from commercial ice makers to furnace fans and walk-in refrigerators--10 items in all--that it reregulated to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 435 million metric tons and potentially save American families and businesses $78 billion in electricity bills through 2030.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, the DOE says that it has finalized new efficiency standards for a total of more than 30 household and commercial products, including dishwashers, refrigerators and water heaters, which may save consumers nearly $450 billion and cut greenhouse gas emissions by over two billion tons through 2030.

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