Monday, September 18, 2006

Time to Ban Incandescent Light Bulbs?

This morning, there was an article in the Toronto Star that caught my eye. Tyler Hamilton's Lights fantastic, and efficient article in the Business section of the Star got me thinking. If they could phase out the production of a number of substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion (essentially Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC)) with the Montreal Protocol, why can't the same be done with incandescent light bulbs.

What is an incandescent light bulb?

The incandescent light bulb is a source of artificial light that works through the process of incandescence. An electric current passes through a thin filament, heating it and causing it to emit light. The enclosing glass bulb prevents the oxygen in air from reaching the hot filament, which would be otherwise rapidly destroyed by oxidation. A benefit of the incandescent bulb is that they can be produced for a wide range of voltages, from a few volts to several hundred volts. However, this type of light bulb has a relatively poor luminous efficacy. This means that its ratio of the total apparent power of a light source to its actual total power, is not good compared to newer lighting technologies.

  1. Glass bulb (or "envelope")
  2. Low pressure inert gas
  3. Tungsten filament
  4. Contact wire (goes to foot)
  5. Contact wire (goes to base)
  6. Support wires
  7. Glass mount/support
  8. Base contact wire
  9. Screw threads
  10. Insulation
  11. Electrical foot contact

Approximately 95% of the power consumed by an incandescent light bulb is emitted as heat, with the remaining 5% of power being emitted as visible light. This is extremely inefficient, compared to other types of lighting, such as fluorescent lamps which emit closer to 20% of power as visible light. In addition, incandescent bulbs produce much more heat, which end up adding to air conditioning costs, increasing the need for more energy to cool down a building in the summer.

Alternatives to Incandescent Light Bulbs

There are some current alternatives to incandescent light bulbs. One of these alternatives is the compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which one can readily find available at most major stores these days. CFLs use about a quarter of the power of incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount of light. For example, a 14-watt CFL produces the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb (approximately 900 lumens or 60 lumens per watt). A comparison of the operating costs of these two light sources follows (using $0.10 per kWh for cost of energy).

Electricity Cost
(for 800-900 lumens at a rate of $0.10/kWh)

The average lifetime of incandescent light bulbs is about 750-1000 hours. It would take at least 6-11 incandescent bulbs to last as long as one compact fluorescent, which have an average lifetime between 11,250 and 15,000 hours. This causes an additional total cost of using incandescent bulbs.

Going further into the future, light emitting diodes (LEDs) technology should become more prevalent. In Hamilton's article, he writes of a company called Carmanah Technologies, based out of Victoria, Canada, that can't keep up with demand for its solar-powered LED lighting systems, which airports, municipalities, transit authorities and defence departments across North America and Europe are eagerly ordering. The reason is because for some applications, it costs more to put in electrical wiring (i.e. to a bus shelter or an airport runway) than to pay a premium for lights that can operate exclusively on sunlight and battery technology. Each system sold means a lighting system that won't be drawing from the electrical grid.

Carmanah's CEO says that LED technology is "crystallizing" in the area of general illumination and that it will eventually target its LED light systems at everything from walkways and parking lots to school campuses and phone booths.

Not too far from Carmanah is Burnaby-based TIR Systems Ltd., which touts itself on its Web site as "Building the Foundations of Tomorrow's Lighting." TIR's Lexel LED technology is aimed at general lighting and promises an 80 per cent reduction in electricity consumption. Steve Campbell, a spokesperson for TIR, calls lighting the "low-hanging fruit" for efforts to address the Kyoto Protocol and global warming. He also states:

No other world energy consumer represents a faster opportunity to reduce global energy consumption.


LED developers are heading toward lower-price markets that aim to replace the filament-based light bulb.

Two other alternative to incandescent light bulbs are silicon-based lighting technology and fibre-optic technology. While less mature than CFL or LED technology, investors and venture capitalists behind both technologies are hopeful that the can bring products to market at the $1/bulb milestone.

Why should we ban incandescent light bulbs?

Despite rising environmental awareness, steadily increasing electricity prices, industry innovation and heightened public awareness, it is difficult for people to embrace change. While it would be ideal for people to voluntarily switch to more energy efficient lighting sources, reality has shown that true buy-in comes when users have no choice but to accept it. We have seen this with the rising use of blue box/composting programs, coupled with cut backs/limits in garbage pickup.

Could this ban work? Here's where past history in the form of the Montreal Protocol comes in. Prior to its implementation, people thought that it would be nearly impossible to phase out CFCs. Despite these feelings from its skeptics, this international treaty, which phased out the production of CFCs over a set schedule, forced all stakeholders to actively pursue and bring to market alternative CFC-free products, and as such, many of the targets that were agreed upon within the Montreal Protocol were achieved ahead of schedule.

If the Montreal Protocol was able to cause this type of change with regards to CFCs, why couldn't something similar for incandescent light bulbs also occur? We have viable alternatives to incandescent bulbs today. With the elimination of incandescent bulbs on the market, this would force the public into replacing incandescent bulbs with more energy efficient solutions. This would in turn spur on more investments in other lighting technologies, thus causing prices to drop once a critical mass of new products hits the market. All new buildings (residential, commercial, industrial) would be fitted with these same lighting solutions.

While this would not be a popular ban to implement, the potential gains in this endeavour would outweigh the short term pains that might be experienced during the transitional period.

We all have a part to play in helping to reduce the amount of energy we consume; this would just be one of our first steps.

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Anonymous said...

Just as an interesting protest. Now granted, I live in Victoria, BC and winter tends to be milder (not counting the freak snowstorm we had today), but in general, out here, my incandescent lights produce most, if not all, of my heat during the winter. I'd say that's rather efficient use of them.

I used a couple CFL bulbs for a while, but they give off cold, unfriendly lighting that's particularly terrible in the winter months for anyone with SAD (perhaps due to a near-complete lack of infrared). In addition, CFL's have a colour rendering index of only 80, to incandescent's 100, which does give some people problems. Until they come out with affordable multi-spectrum CFL's (CRI 97), I'd recommend sticking to your normal lightbulbs.

Halides are actually the most approximate lights to sunlight, but they're even less heat-efficient than incandescents.

TastesGood said...

I do think CFLs are great for table lamps and closets, but who wants to feel like their in an office building when they get home? Dimmers are a great way of saving energy! There is alot of dimming info on the web (check and not only do you get engery and CO2 savings, but you get the option of setting the light level as you desire. CFLs can not be dimmed, even though some claim they can. The problem is the way dimmers work. In simple terms, dimmers shut your lights on and off around 120 times a second. What we preceive as dimming is actually the dimmer keeping your lights off longer in that on-off cycle. The dimmer the lights, the longer your lights are off, the more electricity you save, and the longer your bulb lasts ( potentially greater than 20x its normal switched life) The problem with CFLs is that the balast inside the bulb is also controling when the lamp is fired (using electricity) and that will always conflict with dimmers. One CFL manufacturer actually said they can be dimmed using a reastat dimmer. These things have been unavailable since the 70s when solid state dimming was coming of age (again check lutron who invented solid state dimming). Ok, so no dimming them. Another problem is installing these bulbs in down fixtures. The heat generated by the bulb with rise through the base where the ballast is located and shorten the life of that bulb significantly. Having to replace a CFL every 6 months is not a great way to cut your lighting costs. So now we have to replace all our downward facing fixture with flourescent fixtures with externaly mounted balasts. Should i keep going? Ok so you know that painting or picture we have lit with the sweet looking track fixture? well now we have use flourescent lamps... how do we aim the beam of light on the picture? You can't (yet)! flourescent lights distribute light throughout the whole survace of the lamp. They can't focus light like incandescent lamps can. I could go on and on but i will stop it here. There simply is not enough research being done by these law-makers to justify the termination of incandescent lamps. I am 100% for cutting green house gases and lighting is a huge component of that, but i am also expecting these law-makers to do their homework before jumping to a quick solution!

Anonymous said...

Proposals to ban incandescent lights as a way to solve global warming and reduce greenhouse gases sounds like a ploy that oil companies would use to turn the heat off the real problem. OIL product burning motor vehicles are just as inefficient as the humble incandescent light bulb but with 1000 times more energy involved. Lets not get distracted here!

Why is the development of the electric car being hampered? The decrease in atmospheric pollution and green house gas production through the removal of oil based internal combustion engines would far outweigh any increase in fossil fuel burning electric power generation stations required to power electric cars......or the amount of pollution currently produced through the use of humble incandescent light bulbs.

Lollie said...

CFL bulbs once disposed into rubbish tip leech mercury into soil, something that's surely worse for the environment long-term.

Frankly I can't believe this issue hasn't been properly discussed.

Unknown said...

Replacing the incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs saves money on power. Fluorescent light bulbs are brighter than Incandescent lights and consume less energy than those.