Why we need to get rid of incandescent bulbs
The idea of phasing out incandescent light bulbs in order to save energy has been widely welcomed across the world and for many the question is not “if” we should do it, but “how fast” we can do it.
The benefits are clear: The potential energy savings are 10 billion Euros per year in Europe alone, along with 25 million tonnes of CO2. Globally, these savings are roughly four to five times. Politically too it seems an easy win at a time when strict carbon reduction targets are being set and the absolute need to reduce carbon emissions have been widely accepted by governments, scientists and NGOs.
However, a number of people remain uncomfortable with the idea. Resistance is generally based on the notion that the only alternative to the incandescent light bulb is the CFL energy saving bulb and a number of supposed (negative) issues associated with this light source are then listed and multiplied. This picture however is misleading.
In fact, the Lighting Industry is fast developing several alternatives to the incandescent light bulb in addition to the new ranges of CFL lamps. A new generation of energy saving Halogen lamps is now becoming available in Europe and the US. These offer energy savings from 30 to up to 50 %, will last three times longer, and provide a quality of light, which is equal to that of an incandescent bulb. These new lamps are dimmable, allowing for even greater energy savings, and are the same size and shape as the ordinary incandescent bulbs. Most importantly, they can directly replace incandescent bulbs. Within a few years these new halogen alternatives will be available in the huge quantities needed.
The second alternative being developed is light emitting diodes (LEDs). These will truly take lighting into the 21st Century with lifetimes that are fifty times longer than incandescent bulbs and anticipated energy savings of 95 %. The first high quality light generation to provide enough light to replace low wattage incandescent bulbs will be available within 1–2 years and major developments are expected within the next 3–5 years. LEDs will also offer energy saving alternatives for those specialist areas such as fridge and oven lamps, which CFL lamps are unsuited for.
The existing CFL lamp also offers an important alternative. The days when they were heavy, ugly and pricey have long gone. Today’s CFL lamps offer energy savings of up to 80 %, are small, bulb or candle-shaped, and much cheaper. Colour variations are also available and increasing numbers can also be dimmed. Well known brands offer the best all round quality. They are ideal for areas where lighting is left on for longer periods such as halls, landings and porches.
However a number of concerns still exist regarding CFLs. These lamps contain minute amounts of mercury, which is needed to create light in an efficient way. Despite the fact that the mercury used would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen, there is a justified worry about this mercury being disposed of in the ground. CFL’s fall under the EU WEEE recycling laws and it is expected that in the future the great majority will be recycled.
However, mercury is also omitted in the atmosphere from the power system, and the mercury contained in lamps need to be weighed against that emitted from power plants.
Studies show that indirectly the additional energy usage of incandescent bulbs is responsible for more mercury entering the environment than that is contained in a CFL. It should also be remembered that each CFL lamp means that 6–10 incandescent bulbs don’t need making, transporting and disposing off. Life cycle studies have clearly shown that about 90 % of the environmental impact of a light bulb is in its usage phase, in other words when it consumes electricity. Both these factors favour the CFL.
It is often assumed that the discussion about phasing out incandescent bulbs is about lighting in the home, but figures show that about 25 % of all such bulbs still sold in Europe today end up in commercial applications such as hotels, restaurants and even offices.
There is also a striking unbalance between the amount of electricity used by incandescent bulbs, their sales volumes and the work they actually perform: Incandescent bulbs consume 25 % of all electricity used for lighting in the world, but they only produce 4 % of all electric light. This is despite the fact that they represent 2/3 of all global lamp sales!
Huge savings can thus be made in the way we are lighting our offices, roads, shops and factories. It would be a real shame, if we let our nostalgia for a century-old, inefficient bulb, obscure the need to switch to more energy efficient technologies.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of eceee as an organisation.
Columns by Harry Verhaar
Back to index of columns