If one doesn't have candles for shabbat, may one say a blessing on light bulbs? Since the point is to have light for שלום בית (household serenity), it would seem that electric lights would have the same status as candles.
Can one fulfill one's obligation to light using electric lights? This issue hinges on whether the original takana limited lighting to a specific list of wicks and fuel. From the mishna in Shabbat 20b, one might get that impression. Many poskim, however, did not seem to see this as a limitation. (See Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkheta vol. II 43:4 and fn. 22.)
Rav Neuwirth, in his Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkheta, rules that one who lights with electric lights, has valid backing among poskim, and should recite a berakha on this lighting.
This would make a strong case for people in dorms or other fire-hazardous situations. (A fluorescent bulb might not do, since it has no filament and is therefore less like a fire.)
Furthermore, it would be advisable that in the modern day household, where the true benefit is derived more from the bulbs than the flames, that one have intention for BOTH when reciting the berakha. – Mordechai Friedman, ed.
From Torah.org I glean that:
Teshuvos Beis Yitzchak Yorah Daiya 120; Machaze Avraham 41; Melamed Leho'il 47; Harav Y.Y. Henkin (Eidus l'Yisrael, pg. 122) hold that it is permissible to use electricity for Shabbos candles and the proper blessing may be recited.
Teshuvos Levushei Mordechai Orach Chaim 3:59; Maharshag 2:107; Pekudas Elazer 22; Tchebiner Rav (quoted in Shraga ha-Meir 5:11) hold that it is not proper to use electric lights for this Mitzvah.
Har Tzvi 2:114 quoting the Rogatchover Gaon; Mishpatei Uziel Orach Chaim 1:7; Harav M. Feinstein (oral ruling quoted in The Radiance of Shabbos, 2, note 26) hold it is permissible to use electrical lights, but the blessing should not be recited over them.
And I quote:
Harav S.Z. Auerbach (quoted in Shemiras Shabbos K'hilchasah 43 note 22) maintains that a blessing could be made over a flashlight but not over other lights.
- Rav Moshe Feinstein: One does not recite a blessing.
- Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: One does recite a blessing.
Both rabbis agree that one can use incandescent (preferably unfrosted) light bulbs in a "pressing situation," (eg. fire hazard, or you don't have candles).
Ask your rabbi for practical applications.
Regarding the second part of your question:
Would it not be better to use electric lights for neirot Shabbat since they provide the primary light in our homes? Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l suggested that we still light oil or wax candles today for several reasons. One is that they were established as the most beautiful way to fulfill the mitzva. Moreover, they are intrinsically identified with neirot Shabbat, and thus are distinguished as being in honor of Shabbat. Finally, since it is such a widespread custom to kindle them in honor of Shabbat, they may have the status of minhag chashuv (an important custom that cannot be changed) and thus we perform the mitzva with them.
Two reasons are given for lighting shabbat candles:
- Shalom Bayit
- Oneg Shabbat
Since the light source of a bulb fulfills both these criteria, it should theoretically be permissable.
Most Poskim do, however, make a distinction between battery powered lights and alternative current lights that run from a power outlet. Since the former runs on battery power, they are running on a fuel much akin to oil, whereas the latter is supplied by a constant piping of electrical current.
Rav Moshe Feinstein: One does not recite a blessing.
I actually did read once that Rav Moshe Feinstein (ZATZAL) had in fact recited the Berakhah over a flashlight when at a hotel that wouldn't permit lighting the candles.
I think the consensus is to light the candles whenever possible. If candles cannot be lit due to a hazard or prohibition of some sort (hospitals), then you recur to lighting a bulb.