For 250,000 lucky Maryland homeowners the holiday season brought a special gift: Two compact fluorescent light bulbs from Allegheny Power, the big utility that serves the western part of the state.

The 13-watt compact bulbs give off as much light as traditional 60-watt bulbs but use 75 percent less energy and last about a decade.

The bulbs were provided as part of an energy awareness program established by the Maryland Public Service Commission. To fund the effort, each month for a year households paid 96 cents in the form of an environmental surcharge on electric bills.

Early compact bulbs were strangely shaped, often gave off an eerie yellow light and were pretty much a marketing dud. The new models fit any fixture that holds a regular bulb and the light they provide is about the same as everyday bulbs. The hope is that as homeowners become familiar with the new technology they'll switch to the power-saving bulbs on their own.

Allegheny Power says Maryland could save 100 million kilowatts a year if every household began using just one of the new bulbs. That's enough power to light up the state capital for almost 40 months.

No less important, one bulb per household would also reduce state-wide carbon dioxide emissions by almost 170 million tons per year.

There's a lot of chatter about saving energy and reducing harmful emissions sometime in the distant future. But the Maryland program takes on energy and environmental issues now, today, and without a lot of cost or hassle. It's a good idea, one which should be encouraged in all states. Until then, you can start your own program to cut homeownership costs the next time you shop. Go green and just switch to compact bulbs as the old ones burn out. You'll save money and we'll all breathe easier.

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