A brief interruption in the road-trip gorging to address the misconceptions surrounding the impending demise of the traditional incandescent light bulb.
As you may have heard, the U.S. and Canadian governments are banning the manufacture or import of incandescent bulbs. The U.S. actually started in 2012 and has just completed the ban, while Canada won’t be finished for another year, though consumers in both countries can still purchase the bulbs while store supplies last.
Perhaps predictably, there has been some hoarding, along with much wailing in some quarters (http://freedomlightbulb.blogspot.ca). Why?
- Incandescent bulbs are dirt cheap, often less than $1 apiece
- Many folks are accustomed to the yellowish light cast by an incandescent
- “No damn government is telling me what to do/taking away my freedom to burn energy… blah, blah, blah”.
The reason governments are doing this—the legislation was introduced under neocons George Bush in the U.S. and Stephen Harper in Canada, by the way—is to promote energy efficiency. Previous administrations passed similar laws regarding the efficiency of everything from refrigerators and clothes washers to vehicles.
Back then, there was an initial outcry about the impossibility of meeting these new targets and the high cost to consumers of doing so. But manufacturers did what business does best: They innovated and, through economies of scale and technological improvements, brought prices down and slashed energy consumption.
Let me point out that the incandescent light bulb is one of the most inefficient of inventions. Indeed, early electric companies often gave bulbs away just so they could make money on the power consumed (kind of like printers and ink cartridges, but I digress).
Roughly 10 per cent of a traditional incandescent bulb’s energy goes to producing light. The remaining 90 per cent is wasted as heat. Effectively, it’s a very inefficient space heater. Incandescents also last as little as 1,000 hours, meaning they have to be replaced every few years. Note: There are improved incandescents, but they’re still not very efficient.
So what’s the solution? Many people assume it’s compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). These corkscrew-shaped bulbs have been around for about a decade, are about 75 per cent efficient, last perhaps 10,000 hours and have plunged in price from about $20 to around $4 or less apiece—it’s that economy of scale and innovation I was talking about earlier.
But CFLs aren’t universally popular. For one, the light takes a few seconds to turn on and get up to speed. For another, CFLs don’t always take kindly to dimmer switches. Finally, they contain mercury and are thus a bit tricky to safely dispose of. This last point is one incandescent defenders/hoarders really seize on, which is a bit rich coming from folks who are otherwise hardly defenders of the environment.
The real point is CFLs are yesterday’s technology. I’m here to tell you the future—light-emitting diode bulbs, or LEDs—is already here. They’re increasingly showing up in street and traffic lights, exit signs and, of course, headlamps that never seem to burn out. But they’re also about to hit the consumer mainstream.
LEDs are a definite step up on CFLs. They’re about 80 per cent efficient, meaning a 9.5-watt LED will produce the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent. They also turn on instantly, are dimmable, increasingly produce light similar to incandescents and contain no mercury. Did I mention, they never seem to burn out? I recently bought one for a desk lamp that is estimated to last 36 years, which will pretty much see me out.
The only remaining knock against them is the price. When I first heard of them, LEDs cost some $40 apiece, which made for a hard sell in terms of energy savings/payback.
But remember that earlier bit about economies of scale/technology development? Well, in the past year or so, the price of an LED bulb has fallen to first about $20 and now to nearly $10 for a newer, pancake-shape bulb (60-watt equivalent) produced by Philips.
The other day, I went to Costco, which has an impressive selection of LED bulbs, including a three-bulb package of 40-watt equivalent bulbs—plenty for reading or bathroom vanities—for only $20, or less than $7 apiece. There was also a $10, 60-watt equivalent, with a four-year warrantee and a lifespan of some 40,000 hours. At 10 cents a kilowatt hour, used for three hours a day, this bulb will use only 16 per cent of the electricity of an equivalent incandescent and should save me $190 in power costs over its decades-long lifetime. That’s just for one of maybe two dozen lights in a typical house; lighting typically accounts for 10-15 per cent of electricity consumed in the average home. And prices on these LED bulbs are only going to keep falling.
So forget, for a moment, the environmental/climate change argument of incandescent bulbs consuming way more energy than is necessary. There’s also no longer a real economic argument for keeping them in use. It’s just stupid.