Low hanging fruit: efficient lighting

By Bryan Walker 29/05/2011

It was good to see Michael Downie, the general manager of Phillips Lighting, writing in the Herald this week in praise of energy-efficient light bulbs in the context of tackling climate change.

’The case for change is clear. Globally, lighting uses 20 per cent of all electricity. And two-thirds of lighting installed is based on old, inefficient technology.

’New energy-efficient lights use up to 80 per cent less energy than incandescent bulbs, which waste 95 per cent of their energy on heat.’

Downie  goes on to remark how the speed of change in the development of compact fluorescents (CFLs) is providing new versions with much greater flexibility and variety of appearance.

To objections of cost he points out that a CFL bulb costing around six times more than a standard incandescent bulb will also last five to six times as long and use one-fifth of the electricity over its life time. Over that 5-6 year period, using a ‘cheap’ incandescent bulb works out being around $110 more expensive.

He points ahead beyond CFLs to the even more energy-efficient, albeit initially more expensive, LEDs (pictured):

’But the lighting technology that is really going to revolutionise the way we light our homes, offices and outdoor areas is LED lighting – an LED light bulb uses light-emitting diodes as the source of light.

’Major breakthroughs in this technology over the past few years have resulted in lighting solutions that are far more efficient than standard incandescent bulbs. They have added benefits of providing a cool beam of light, no mercury content and more dimmable options.

’They also can last up to 25 times longer than a standard incandescent bulb. That’s a lot fewer light bulb changes for all of us.’

While Downie acknowledges that there are big issues still to be faced on climate change, he concludes justifiably:

’But more energy-efficient lighting is the low hanging fruit that’s within our reach right now when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions. We are fast running out of reasons not to make the switch.’

This low hanging fruit is well worth picking. Lester Brown in Plan B 4.0 estimates that the nearly 20 per cent of all electricity used globally for lighting could be reduced to 7 per cent with widespread use of energy-efficient light bulbs, including a limited use of LEDs. That’s saving enough electricity, he estimates, to close 705 of the world’s 2670 coal-fired plants. Not a minor matter.

Downie is not openly critical of the Gerry Brownlee’s backtracking on the previous government’s decision to phase out the sale of incandescent bulbs in New Zealand, but the implication seems pretty obvious.  Globally, many governments are legislating or regulating incandescent bulbs out of existence.  He points out that the European Union has started phasing out the bulbs, and in the United States the bulbs are due to be phased out by 2014. His tactful comment on NZ:

’New Zealand had thought about going down the same path, but the Government gave the bulbs a stay of execution, preferring to let consumers choose for themselves.’

Although I was pleased to see Downie’s article given space in the Herald it stirred up again the anger I felt when Gerry Brownlee first announced in 2008 that in the sacred name of consumer choice the new government was reversing the intention to phase out the availability of incandescent bulbs. And  Phil Goff cravenly backed him up by stating that it was a mistake of the Labour government to have attempted it. If climate change is for real — and out of one side of its mouth the government says it is — why draw back from a straightforward regulation which would have a far from insignificant effect on our energy use? It’s not even as if we would be getting out ahead of the pack, that role which the government regularly warns against. To the countries Downie mentions can be added the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Argentina and Cuba among others. If even that simple regulatory step is a step too far for us it’s hard to believe the government is prepared to do anything that addresses climate change with full seriousness.