Is This Really a Bright Idea?

Commentary, Energy, Environment, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

Banning incandescent light bulbs seems to be all the rage these days, Australia’s gone first, the European Union seems to want to do so and there are various state laws being mulled over at present (see the how many legislators does it take to change a light bulb? bill in California, for example). The assumption is that by banning the incandescents everyone will simply switch over to the compact flourescents and thus Gaia will be appeased and the planet saved.

We won’t, therefore, see the end of human civilisation as Bangladesh drowns, the oceans boil and the last human beings barbeque Flipper at the end of times. Or something


However, I’d like to ask one question. Why? Why the banning that is?

Regular readers will know that I’m vaguely involved in the light bulb industry, being a supplier of one of the key ingredients that make metal halide bulbs work (no, these aren’t being banned so I’ve got no specific axe to grind here). So I thought I’d go and ask a few people in the industry about how well compact flourescents are doing, out there in the marketplace, before these bans can have any effect. (Note that the bans, except in Venezuela and Cuba, are all to come into effect in some years’ time, a much longer period than the usual manufacturing timescales.)

Those bulbs that are in the manufacturing process now will all be on the market and indeed sold and installed, long before any effect of a ban makes itself visible in the market. So, an interesting question: just how many compact flourescents are there in the whole manufacturing process this year?

Well, from within the industry, it seems that there are 1 billion. That’s a minimum number. It almost certainly includes the global production of the big three manufacturers, probably does not include any non-foreign-owned Chinese or Japanese production (if indeed there is any of the latter) but it is most definitely a minimum number.

OK, as Dean Baker and others insist, big numbers don’t really mean anything to people; we need to put them into context. One bulb for every six people on the planet? No, not terribly illuminating (sorry, couldn’t resist). So how about in relation to total sales of incandescent light bulbs?

Apologies, as a quick Google didn’t tell me what that number was but in the US it’s some 2 billion a year. According to Fast Company:

“Last year, U.S. consumers spent about $1 billion to buy about 2 billion lightbulbs — 5.5 million every day.”

Let’s make a huge leap of faith and say that global demand is ten times that shall we? The three hundred million people in the US are the richest amongst the large nations, have more living space (and thus lighting) than anyone else and there’s roughly 3 billion or so people living anything close to a well housed and illuminated lifestyle across the planet. The whole point about the poor, something we can actually see from the satellite photographs, is that they don’t in fact have artificial lighting, or in such meagre quantities that it’s not going to change our numbers very much.

So 20 billion incandescents sold annually, as a vaguely informed guess. So only 5% of the market is in fact compact flourescents, so we can see why indeed it might be sensible to have a ban (not that I would agree, but certainly a case can be made) in order to encourage the changeover.

Except, we’re missing a rather important point. Compact flourescents have a much longer lifespan than incandescents.

“Because swirls last so long, every one that’s sold represents the loss of 6 or 8 or 10 incandescent bulb sales.”

Other sources state that the lifespan is 8-12 times longer. Shall we, with our very rough mathematics here, assume 10 times? So, when flourescents have replaced incandescents, we’ll have a global market of only 2 billion bulbs a year, yes?

“Once a third of the sockets in U.S. homes have compact fluorescents–once you sell the bulge of conversion replacements–both incandescent sales and CFL sales will fall off a cliff. Incandescent bulb sales could be cut in half, because we won’t use them any more. And after we’ve installed 1.5 billion swirls, we’ll only be buying perhaps 200 million a year, because they’re on a six- or eight-year replacement cycle.”

Some 100 million of these will continue to be metal halide lamps, as they are at present. Some incandescents will remain because there are times and places when they are still more efficient. Highly insulated houses use them for heating, for example; also, for lights used rarely and for short periods of time (think guest toilet) incandescents are still more economical.
So, well, why the ban?

The free market, all on its very own — people reacting purely to price pressures, the differences in costs of the bulbs and the electricity to power them — is leading the switchover. We don’t actually need any governmental action; we’re already producing over 50% of the compact flourescents that will be needed, perhaps an even higher portion.

Me, cynic that I am, would simply put it down to the fact that politicians have to be seen to be doing something to justify their existence, even if the problem already is, largely, solved without their beneficience, or, indeed, their salaries or existence.