Monday, September 14, 2009

Lights Out!

Europe Evicts the 100w Incandescent Bulb

In April, President Obama made remarks about clean energy that included a reference to Compact Fluorescent light bulbs.

If each one of us replaced just one ordinary incandescent light bulb with one of those compact fluorescent light bulbs -- you know, the swirly ones -- that could save enough energy to light 3 million homes. Just one light bulb each -- 3 million homes worth of energy savings.

You can’t disagree with him (at least I can’t, I have no data either way), but that’s not exactly a bold, detailed plan. Europe, meanwhile outlawed the 100w incandescent light bulb effective this past Tuesday. That’s some hardcore environmentalism right there. They’re gone – you can’t buy them anymore.

Now I’m not entirely sold on replacing incandescent with CF bulbs. I’ve replaced quite a few already, but they’re far from perfect. They don’t fit all existing sockets due to the large plastic neck just above the metal screw threads. Also, you can’t stick a lampshade on one if it’s the kind that grips a round incandescent bulb with two wire loops. But more importantly, the things don’t work right away and they’re not all that environmentally friendly.

CF bulbs generally take up to 30 seconds to come to full brightness once you flip the switch. That’s a long time if you’re using the light to go up a dark flight of stairs or look out onto the front porch to see who’s at the door. “Hang on, the light’s not really bright enough to see who you are. I’ll open the door in, um, 22 more seconds. Sorry!” That feels a bit like a step backwards to me. How about some whale oil and a hurricane lamp?

Equally disconcerting, the CF bulbs are full of mercury. They may last much longer, but disposing of one is a hassle. Traditional light bulbs get tossed in the trash. If you break a CF, it instantly becomes a hazardous spill zone.

All of which wouldn’t be quite as bad except that the things are expensive – quite a bit more than the comparable incandescents. So you’re paying more for something that (in some ways) doesn’t work as well and is more dangerous than what you used to use. The energy-savings looks like less of a no-brainer in that context.

Don’t get me wrong, incandescents are on their way out, though perhaps not as quickly in the rest of the world as in the EU. I actually suspect that in the next 8-10 years, quite a few improvements are likely to be made that will change energy consumption modestly. I looked into putting solar panels on my home a few years back. We’ve got a clear southern exposure that would be perfect for them. However the cost of the panels alone, with installation, was around $22,000. And that didn’t include a system of batteries that let you store the electricity to use when the sun went down or during a mainline power outage. I use most of my electricity in the evening, so the cost/benefit didn’t look good to begin with. In addition, battery technology sucks and I’d have had to replace the (fairly expensive) batteries every few years, with other maintenance and upkeep thrown in.

But batteries are an obstacle in automotive energy efficiency as well. The auto-makers are really hot on alternative-fuels at the moment, and most of the technologies seem to involve electricity in some fashion. I think it’s likely that solar cell, battery and lighting technologies will all look quite a bit different a few years down the line when the demand for them has increased enough for them to no longer be considered “alternative” technologies. Well, let me rephrase that – they’ll likely be “less alternative” technologies, as I don’t really expect America to embrace them to the degree that they’d actually upset the status quo. The "cleantech" joint venture between the US and China may even stimulate growth in that industry, though so far the $15M investment is pretty lackluster.

But if we just can’t wait for that time to come, if Americans get really desperate for environmentally-friendly change, and stimulation, there’s always the eco-vibrator to shake things up a bit. Yes, that’s right, that’s a hand-cranked vibrator. You’re welcome!

Oh yeah, one note: the UK Guardian's Technology Section rocks. I'm not necessarily a giant anglophile or anything, it's just a terrific resource for tech info.


  1. Re... Light Bulbs and supposed energy savings

    good points there Mike, but re Obama
    "You can’t disagree with him"... I beg to disagree ;-)

    savings advice is one thing - forced savings, given that products can have many consumer advantages apart from efficiency, is another.

    there are many reasons why supposed savings end up marginal: onwards

    Additionally, general effects:
    Effect on Electricity Bills
    If energy use does indeed fall with light bulb and other proposed efficiency bans,
    electricity companies make less money,
    and they’ll simply push up the electricity bills to compensate, to cover all their fixed overheads
    (especially since power companies often have their own grids with little supply competition)
    Energy regulators can hardly deny any such cost covering exercise...
    - in which case money savings affected

    Since energy efficiency in effect means cheaper energy,
    people simply leave appliances on more than before This has actually been shown by Scottish and Cambridge research, as linked on the website
    (in the case of CFLs they're supposed to be left on more anyway, to avoid cutting down on their lifespan)
    - in which case energy savings affected


    Europeans (like Americans) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 9 times out of 10 (European Commission and light industry data 2007-8)
    Banning what people want gives the supposed savings - no point in banning an impopular product!

    If new LED lights - or improved CFLs etc - are good,
    people will buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
    If they are not good, people will not buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
    The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio valves/tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway.

    The need to save energy?
    Advice as said is good and welcome, but bans are another matter...
    people -not politicians – pay for energy and how they wish to use it.
    There is no energy shortage - on the contrary, more and more renewable sources are being developed -
    and if there was an energy shortage, the price rise would lead to more demand for efficient products – no need to legislate for it.

    Does a light bulb give out any gases?
    Power stations might not either:
    Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
    Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution.

    Direct ways to deal with emissions (for all else they contain too, whatever about CO2):

    The Taxation alternative
    A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use.
    We are not talking about banning lead paint here.
    This is simply a ban to reduce electricity consumption.

    Even for those who remain pro-ban, taxation to reduce the consumption would be fairer and make more sense, also since governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.

    A few euros/dollars tax that reduces the current sales (EU like the USA 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa)
    raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice.
    It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products.
    When sufficent low emission electricity delivery is in place, the ban can be lifted

    Taxation is itself unjustified, it is simply a better alternative for all concerned than bans.

    Of course an EU ban is underway, but in phases, supposedly with reviews in a couple of years time...

    Maybe the debate in USA and Canada will be affected by the issues being raised over here?

  2. Ok, people Panta Rei's post is what you get from somebody who's NOT too lazy to do some research on a given topic (rather than just blather on about it the way I do). Good post Panta Rei! Thanks!

    It looks like Dr. Thornes (author of the article Panta Rei cited, for those who didn't click it) is attacking this lightbulb issue head on.