Compact fluorescent bulbs provide all the lighting that incandescent bulbs do, for about a quarter the electricity—which makes them very exciting to energy efficiency advocates. According to the US Energy Information Administration, switching all household bulbs that are on for more than 4 hours a day from incandescent to compact fluorescent would reduce residential lighting demand by more than a third.

That would definitely be a step in the right direction. But in the big picture, it is still only a tiny step.

The same study says that lighting accounts for less than a tenth of the electricity used in people’s homes. (Collectively, refrigeration, cooling, cooking, laundry, and other major appliances use much more juice than do lights.) So 35% of less than a tenth is about 3%—that is, a major shift to CFLs would reduce residential electricity demand by about 3 parts in 100.

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  • But things get worse. In the Northwest, people’s homes account for less than a third of total electricity consumption. (Stores, businesses, industry, and government use about 69 percent of the total.) So a 3-percent decrease in residential electricity consumption is equivalent to a 1-percent decline in total consumption—about as much as it goes up in the average year to keep pace with population growth. And electricity accounts for only a minority of all the energy we use, once you factor in petroleum and natural gas. That makes the gains from CFLs seem even smaller in comparison.

    The lesson here isn’t that switching to CFLs is useless. Quite to the contrary; it’s a highly significant, cost-effective, and perhaps even necessary step. But if the Northwest is ever going to significantly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, we’ll have to take lots and lots of steps like that. Each one will require a serious effort and years, or even decades, of steady change.

    If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there’s no silver bullet, no magic technology that can, by itself, cure our fossil fuel dependence. It’s going to take persistence—and lots and lots of small steps.