A bright idea

How many light bulbs does it take to change the planet? City leaders are promoting a new website this month that asks residents to replace five light bulbs with newer high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs.

The Minneapolis Energy Challenge website calculates how much participants will save - in dollars and greenhouse emissions - by replacing their traditional light bulbs and taking other actions to conserve energy.

It also calculates individuals' energy savings with others' actions, adding what might seem like a drop in the bucket into totals organizers hope will be inspiring numbers.

&#8220They'll realize every little thing does make a difference,” said Judy Thommes, marketing director for the Center for Energy and Environment, which developed the website.

CFLs cost about $10 per bulb when they're not on sale, but they also last about 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use about 75 percent less energy.

Switching to CFLs is the first of several recommendations participants will receive when they sign up for the Minneapolis Energy Challenge.

After sharing some basic information about themselves, participants start by filling out an energy calculator. The form asks about the size of a person's home and how they heat it. It also asks about driving habits and how far they commute in an average year.

Using a complicated set of equations, the site then estimates how many pounds of carbon dioxide emissions that person is responsible for releasing each year.

The next section allows people to pledge to take various actions that reduce their carbon footprint. They range in difficulty from turning off lights when leaving a room to insulating walls and attics.

At the end of the pledge section, the website shows the total amount participants will have reduced their carbon footprint - and their energy bills - by following through.

Finally, the challenge lets users assign their savings to up to three teams, which include schools, church groups, neighborhoods or other organizations.

Thommes said they hope community groups use the website to challenge each other to see which club can reduce energy use the most. The page will include regularly updated standings showing what groups have saved the most energy on average.

&#8220We need to get people excited about energy efficiency,” said Gayle Prest, environmental programs manager for the city of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis Energy Challenge isn't the first program to encourage people to voluntarily conserve, but it comes at a good time, Prest said.

Climate change is on people's minds, and the website will give them tools to take action.

&#8220I don't think people always know what to do about [global warming],” Prest said.

Participants can also return to the website to edit their information, add to their list of pledges and talk with experts and others on a collection of message board forums.

&#8220The whole thought behind it is that it will empower people to do something,” Thommes said.

Sheldon Strom, director of the Center for Energy and Environment, said the project was spawned out of frustration with state government's inaction on energy-efficiency issues.

&#8220We think there is a lot more support [for energy conservation] in the public than there is in the Legislature,” said Strom, who wore a checkered sweater on a cool day late last month as he worked in his North Loop office, lit on that day only by natural window light.

The center has presented hundreds of energy fairs, inviting people to learn about steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint and save money. The hope is the website will offer many of the same tools to a wider audience online, Strom said.

The goal is to do what they can to slow global warming, and also change the political climate for lawmakers by documenting just how interested the public is in energy conservation. A continuously updated ticker appears at the top of the website showing how much carbon dioxide users have pledged to reduce from their footprint.

&#8220It puts them in perspective-the magnitude of these actions,” Strom said.

The Minneapolis Energy Challenge has great potential, but people will need to stay committed in order to make a serious impact, said Ken Bradley, a senior policy analyst with Fresh Energy, a Twin Cities nonprofit that advocates for energy efficiency.

&#8220It's really not about living with less. It's about living the same with better products,” Bradley said.

Several people made comments at the Center for Energy and Environment's State Fair booth this year that they were surprised at the quality of CFL lights, which have improved significantly in the last decade, Thommes said.

About 1,900 people signed postcards at the booth pledging to replace five light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps, Thommes said. If they follow through, it will keep more than 1 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year and save participants, together, more than $50,000 annually.

Other signs point to CFLs growing acceptance.

&#8220They're a lot more popular now with the energy awareness,” said Steve Rosch, owner of Nicollet Ace Hardware, which sells several more CFLs than it did a few years ago. &#8220Right now, we're running a big ad on them for this month.”

The city's energy challenge is part of the Minnesota Energy Challenge, so people who live outside the city can also log onto the website and sign up for the challenge.

Dan Haugen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-5088.