Thursday, September 21, 2006

A bulb to save the world

 From Fastcompany, a story of two companies, a buld and saving the world.

Sitting humbly on shelves in stores everywhere is a product, priced at less than $3, that will change the world. Soon. It is a fairly ordinary item that nonetheless cuts to the heart of a half-dozen of the most profound, most urgent problems we face. Energy consumption. Rising gasoline costs and electric bills. Greenhouse-gas emissions. Dependence on coal and foreign oil. Global warming.

What that means is that if every one of 110 million American households bought just one ice-cream-cone bulb, took it home, and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. One bulb swapped out, enough electricity saved to power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island. In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.

Swirl bulbs don't just work, they pay for themselves. They use so little power compared with old reliable bulbs, a $3 swirl pays for itself in lower electric bills in about five months. Screw one in, turn it on, and it's not just lighting your living room, it's dropping quarters in your pocket. The advantages pile up in a way to almost make one giddy. Compact fluorescents, even in heavy use, last 5, 7, 10 years. Years. Install one on your 30th birthday; it may be around to help illuminate your 40th.

In the next 12 months, starting with a major push this month, Wal-Mart wants to sell every one of its regular customers--100 million in all--one swirl bulb. In the process, Wal-Mart wants to change energy consumption in the United States, and energy consciousness, too. It also aims to change its own reputation, to use swirls to make clear how seriously Wal-Mart takes its new positioning as an environmental activist.

Steven Hamburg is an associate professor at Brown University, an expert on energy consumption and global warming who helped Wal-Mart think through the spiral-bulb strategy. "Can they change the game? Think how many games Wal-Mart has changed. There's no reason they can't change this game."

It was a perfect swirl: Katrina, Rita, $70-a-barrel oil, price-chopping, corporate consciousness-raising, with Oprah's lightbulb club thrown in.

A 60-watt classic bulb and a 15-watt swirl are identically bright--the swirl just uses 45 fewer watts.

How much is 100 million bulbs? It's 25 million classic GE four-packs. That many boxes of bulbs would fill 262 Wal-Mart tractor trailers, a ghost convoy of Wal-Mart trucks, loaded with nothing but lightbulbs, stretching 3.5 miles--a convoy that will never roll. Every year for six years--just from one bulb, this year. Not to mention the line of garbage trucks necessary to cart 100 million burned-out incandescent bulbs to the landfill.

Once Wal-Mart decides to make swirls an important product, the appeal for GE also becomes clear. It's the power of the big dog: GE can either help Wal-Mart sell swirls, or some other lightbulb company will. In either case, GE's regular-bulb business shrivels. "The business case is pretty clear," says Bolsinger. "If we don't grab the market share of CFLs, we lose." The only way to survive creative destruction, in fact, is to get out in front of the tsunami, to catch the wave.

"It's certainly possible to see a day when a cartoonist will draw a cartoon with a character having an idea," says Kerby, "you know, with the traditional-shaped incandescent lightbulb going on over the character's head--and my grandchildren will look at that and not know what it means. And that's not a bad thing, because we'll be living in a much better world."
Walmart is slowing changing its image. The interesting thing is that it is still sticking to its original goal - save money for the customer (and make money in the meanwhile).

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