This week the European ban on old—fashioned, energy sucking incandescent light bulbs begins. Stores that sell the banned bulbs will be allowed to sell what they have on hand and then that’s it. Say adieu to the shapely frosted bulb and guten tag to the coiled compact fluorescent lamp. It’s a system change that will come to the United States in 2012 when a similar ban will take effect here.
Why ban old bulbs? The numbers are pretty clear. According to the European Union “the energy savings would cut average household electricity bills by up to â‚¬50 a year, amounting to about â‚¬5 billion annually” (that’s more than $7 billion dollars). According to the European Lamp Companies Federation “7800 million kWh in electrical energy will be saved, which is 2 percent of total energy used for lighting in Western Europe.” The Federation also found that a change away from the traditional light bulbs means that “CO2 emission[s] will be reduced by 4600 million tons of CO2—a reduction in the generation of greenhouse gases of 33 percent.” For a simple shift, these numbers aren’t too shabby.
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Change is difficult nonetheless. The complaining has already started. Officials are being accused of “depriving children of traditional fairground lights.” Mean, cold-hearted officials! They hate children (and probably freedom too)! Or, wait, is it that they want to protect the children’s future?
Whenever I read about something being banned I have to admit my adrenaline starts spiking. See, around this town, I was called the “tobacco czar” several years ago because I was in charge of efforts to enforce Washington State’s smoking ban. I also have to laugh a bit because I have heard all the arguments against such a ban (selling cigarettes is “why we live in America“). But this ban—even while it’s unrelated to an addictive substance (or is it?)—has some new ones. There are sure to be “fairground lights” arguments here in the States, and George Will already accused the coming US bulb switch as part of a protectionist conspiracy. On the bright side, we’ll have lots of new “how many does it take to screw in a light bulb” jokes coming our way.
But like public health, tackling climate change is going to be most effective at the systems—or up-stream level. I wrote recently about Dr. John Snow and how he begged local officials to remove the handle from a contaminated well. When they finally did it the terrible outbreak of cholera stopped.
Taking the old light bulb off store shelves is like removing the pump handle. The benefit is enormous when compared to minor adjustments. This has always been the case with wholesale systems change, whether it has been smoking on airplanes (“people won’t fly anymore!”), taking phosphorus out of dishwashing soap (“my dishes won’t get clean!”), changing building codes (“you’ll put us all out of business!”), or cap and trade (“energy prices will soar!”).
Change is difficult. After all, we all know the story of Thomas Edison trying everything under the sun—bamboo, hair, copper, gold—to make the filament of his light bulb brighter and longer-lasting. It’s American mythology—our proud scientific heritage. But our pride in Edison is wrapped up in a belief that we’re capable of continued innovation and progress. On that score, I think Thomas Edison would approve.
I’m surprised the NYT article only mentions compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). I’m much more interested in mercury-free light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, which have gotten brighter and come down a bit in price.
Banning incandescent-bulb sales is a well-meaning, but poor idea. CFLs have a different light spectrum, flicker a bit, are slow to come up to full brightness, contain toxins and should not be smashed under-foot at Jewish weddings. The savings with CFLs are mine, and mine alone, since I buy the electricity and therefore the decision of what light to buy should be mine. Education of environmental impact is a good idea; we can then decide whether to buy incandescents, fluorescents, light-emitting diodes, candles or any other light sources.But use of electricity has greater environmental impact than is reflected in its cost. Herein lies the problem. If environmental costs were incorporated in the cost of electricity and lamps, the savings by non-incandescents would be apparent and a gradual switch, when appropriate, would take place. Let’s work on externalizing costs for improving the environment and society in general!Let’s also remember that carbon dioxide is only one aspect of our environment!
Banning incandescent bulbs? Local building codes (Orange County, California) require that either lighting be fluorescent or lights be put on dimmer switches. Now, incandescent bulbs do fine with dimmer switches, but fluorescents dont (the ones I have access to, anyway), neither do CFLs. How recyclable are fluorescent bulbs compared to incandescents? What is to be done with the gasses inside fluorescent bulbs?
I was talking to some engineers at an Electric Utility recently. They were really concerned about the rise of CFLs, since they cause lots of harmonics on the power, and their power factor isn’t great. It’s not clear that having everyone use CFLs will actually decrease electricity consumption as much as claimed. To say nothing of the fact that in cold climates, the lost heat output from incandescents will be made up by other heating sources, typically the burning of fossil fuels.I’m all for sensible environmental policies, but this one doesn’t seem at all sensible to me.