Sun is setting on incandescent era

Three years ago, while developing a cover story on new lighting technologies, I spoke with ecologist Matt Prescott. This Brit was six months into his volatile Internet campaign to Ban the Bulb. He wanted governments to outlaw those glass-encased, glowing filaments that light most homes throughout the developed world.

A $100 LIGHT BULB? This GeoBulb promises energy and cost savings over the long haul, but has high up-front costs. Priciness can be an impediment to sampling new cost-saving technologies. C. Crane Co.

Well, Prescott appears to be getting his dream — and by 2012, just about his target deadline. Beginning today, the European Union launches its phaseout of standard, incandescent bulbs. Existing stocks will be sold off, and in the future, only fluorescents, high-efficiency halogens and digital technologies — such as light-emitting diodes, aka LEDs — will be illuminating EU nights.

The United States will be following closely behind. Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a similar phaseout of incandescent bulbs is due to get under way, beginning with elimination of 100-watt bulbs by 2012. By the time the phaseout gets to 40 watters, two years later, consumer lighting must use 25 to 30 percent less energy than today. By 2020, U.S. lighting must consume 70 percent less.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s post (on coming appliance rebates), some new technologies are so much more energy efficient than what we’ve been living with that a simple substitution could save us not only significant amounts of energy but also lots of money. My new refrigerator is a good case in point.

Lighting offers another great example. As Prescott noted, conventional incandescent bulbs are essentially little heat lamps. Sold to banish the darkness, these lights actually dispense some 95 percent of their energy as heat. Overall, their technology’s basic design has changed little from what Thomas Edison first commercialized in 1879 (lamps that had already been under development for nearly a half-century).

In Europe, when the standard bulb disappears, households can expect yearly savings of 25 to 50 euros (about $35 to $70) on electric bills (depending on home sizes and the lighting alternatives adopted). Indeed, booting the old bulbs out will, within a decade, save roughly 5 billion euros annually and electricity equivalent to the amount used by 11 million households today, according to EU estimates.

“Crucially,” the EU argues, the phased-in move to alternative lighting “will lead to a reduction of up to 15 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.” As such, bulb substitution will become “part of the EU [2020] objective to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.” Admittedly, ditching the old-style bulbs will be a baby step. It would amount to a drop of less than half of one percent of 2007 greenhouse-gas emissions by the EU’s 15 oldest members.

Still, you’ve got to start somewhere. And mandating a big market for greener bulbs could go a long way to ushering in economies of scale. Which is important, because people recoil against paying big up-front costs when any payback will take many years. And that would be the case for the new GeoBulb, a $100 LED-based alternative to the standard 60-watt incandescent bulb. Unlike many digital lamps (the industry term for what we call light bulbs), GeoBulbs fit into standard light sockets and resemble old-style incandescents.

Drawing only 12.5 percent as much electricity as a standard light bulb and projected to last about 30 times as long (roughly 30,000 hours, or the equivalent of 10 years of conventional use), a GeoBulb might save consumers more than $100 over its lifetime — even factoring in the seemingly astronomical cost of the initial bulb.

It does not, however, beat the direct costs associated with compact fluorescents. At retail prices, a GeoBulb costs almost 75 percent more than 30,000-hours worth of compact fluorescents that are providing comparable illumination. So why choose an LED lamp? Because unlike the fluorescents, it doesn’t contain mercury. (I blogged, last year, about how to dispose of mercury-laced lamps and deal with fluorescent-lamp breaks. Hint: Sweeping or vacuuming isn’t the answer.)

So on their face, GeoBulbs and other LED-based lamps sound like a safe and green alternative. They’re also relatively rugged, which means they can be used on porches above doors that slam, on ceiling fans that wobble or in work lamps that inevitably get banged around (something about which I have more than a little familiarity).

But LED bulbs, for all of their would-be advantages, remain a tough sell. Not only do they rely on consumers having big reserves of cash on hand, but they also require trust. Trust that their operational lifetime indeed runs close to 30,000 hours. Trust that their color rendition is what you were counting on (since buying a replacement becomes prohibitively expensive). Trust that it won’t break somewhere along the line (like when the dog knocks over the table lamp). And trust that you’ll even live long enough to see the savings.

All of which explains why even when we know what’s best for us, we often choose a compromise technology on the basis of up-front costs. And that’s where rebates make sense. They drive us to buy smarter and to do what’s in our own and society’s best economic interests.

So, DOE and U.S. power companies, are you listening? Consider issuing rebates to speed our transition to digital lighting.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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