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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No time to dim efficiency ambitions

BBC News Online : "Green Room" article
, 11 Nov 2008

Leaders of EU nations will vote in December on measures to phase out the use of traditional incandescent light bulbs, explains Matt Prescott. But, in this week's Green Room, he says lobbying by the lighting industry could result in the 27-nation bloc dimming its ambitions on energy efficiency.

Allowing the lighting industry to decide how much they should improve the energy performance of their products is extremely unwise, bordering on scandalous
When I first set up the Ban The Bulb energy efficiency campaign and proposed the phased banning of traditional incandescent light bulbs, even my friends thought I was crazy.

Now, almost four years later, 30 countries have announced plans to phase out the use of these old fashioned appliances; China has announced plans to phase out the production of most of the world's incandescent light bulbs, and the major light bulb manufacturers have accepted that change is inevitable.

However, behind the scenes, the details associated with these public pronouncements remain to be converted into legally binding action, and a lot hinges on the votes that European governments will cast in Brussels on 8 December.

The lighting industry has said that it wants to be allowed to sell improved incandescent light bulbs, which use 25% less electricity than their traditional equivalents and would cut Europe's annual electricity use by the equivalent of two-and-a-half large power stations.

In my view, allowing the lighting industry to decide how much they should improve the energy performance of their products is extremely unwise, bordering on scandalous. It is akin to asking the world's banks to regulate themselves.

Manufacturers have patents, factories, markets and profits to protect and cannot be expected to decide, in an impartial fashion, what is technologically feasible or economically justifiable for the EU's 27 member countries and 500 million citizens.

It is therefore essential that our leaders protect the interests of society and the environment by deciding where they want us to be in five years time and what is possible, rather than settling for what suits the short-term, narrow interests of big business.

Shining examples

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) already offer energy savings of between 65% and 80%, and the best designs, in my opinion, need to form the basis for any minimum energy performance standard within the next three to five years for the majority of domestic light bulbs sold in the EU.

CFLs could save the EU up to 10 power stations' worth of electricity

Using the best designs of CFLs available today would allow the EU to cut its annual electricity use by an amount equivalent to 10 large power stations.

By contrast, allowing the use of improved incandescent light bulbs being promoted by the manufacturers would result in the Europe's carbon dioxide emissions being up to 53 million tonnes higher each year than if the CFL benchmark was adopted.

Based on the recent price for carbon emissions, this outcome would impose an unnecessary annual emissions cost of one billion euros (£800m) on the continent's electricity bills.

Using wasteful light bulbs also requires countries to pay for large coal imports and to have extra power stations available to provide electricity during periods of peak electricity demand.

At the household level, energy saving light bulbs can help to slash electricity bills. It now costs about one euro (£0.80) to buy a good quality CFL in the UK.

On average, this can be expected to use 15 euros (£12) less electricity each year for its lifetime of six or more years.

Feeling the heat

During its manufacture, each CFL does require about four times as much energy as a single incandescent lamp.

However, it then lasts six times longer and uses 65% - 80% less electricity throughout its 6,000-hour lifetime.

As a result, the manufacturing, replacement, running and carbon costs accumulated over the lifetime of a single CFL are all significantly lower than those associated with using many shorter-lived incandescent light bulbs.

On the down side, each CFL contains about 4-6mg of mercury. However, this mercury content can be safely and fully recycled, and there is no need for energy saving lamps to pose a risk to health or the environment.

By comparison, burning the extra coal needed to keep an incandescent light bulb working releases roughly three times more mercury directly into the atmosphere and poses a genuine risk wherever it ends up.

My preferred solution would be for the mercury content of CFLs to be reduced to 1-2mg and for every EU nation to introduce robust methods for recycling all of the hazardous substances found in homes.

Torch bearing

I also feel that EU governments should introduce minimum performance standards for the illumination produced by CFLs and ensure that only the best designs, which produce a warm, bright light within five seconds and emit no ultraviolet light, are allowed on the market.

I hope that our politicians will find the courage to do everything they can to bring into cheap and widespread use the high end of the energy efficient products

For the small proportion of household lamps that need to be used with dimmers, I would like to see light emitting diodes (LEDs) being brought into widespread and affordable use within five years.

LEDs offer energy savings of 90% and produce an instant bright illumination, contain no mercury and can be fully dimmed.

They also last for up to 50,000 hours, so do not need to be replaced for many, many years. Perhaps this is why there is reluctance among manufacturers to sell them.

I have not endorsed LEDs before, but they are now available as table and floor lamp substitutes for 40W, 60W and 100W incandescent bulbs, and I firmly believe that national governments should do everything in their power to create a massive market for LEDs.

Overall, I am delighted that EU leaders have decided to phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs.

However, I hope that our politicians will find the courage to do everything they can to bring into use the high end of the energy efficient products that are already available.

I am confident that much greater energy efficiency offers the most cost effective way to bring about a positive step change in our energy bills, carbon emissions and energy security.

Dr Matt Prescott is an environmental consultant and director of, an online campaign encouraging greater energy efficiency, and founding co-ordinator of Energy Saving Day

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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