First, They Came For Your Lightbulbs

Some misgivings, as the incandescent bulb heads for the industrial scrapheap
by Gordon Campbell

On the list of wondrous domestic appliances, the lightbulb probably deserves to rank right up there alongside the flush toilet. By the bulb’s kindly light and via a technology virtually unchanged since the days of Thomas Edison, we’ve won back the hours after sunset and before dawn. Think of the things we can do thanks to this cheap, affordable and relatively efficient way of conquering the dark. Lightbulbs have even – allegedly – been doing their bit for the civil rights movement. Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, once argued that the lightbulb had helped to banish the fear of blackness from European civilization. (Not in time to save Trayvon Martin though.)

For the past decade though, the incandescent bulb under which most of us have lived our lives has been under sustained attack, for its inefficiency. Much of its energy is dispensed in heat, not light – and there’s an environmental cost involved with that waste. Over the course of the past ten years, incandescents have been slowly phased out or banned in much of the developed world, in the name of energy conservation. Their production has largely shifted from Europe, to factories in China, and onwards to factories in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some residual concerns however, dim the sense that this has been an entirely win/win outcome. As the crackpot level, the energy efficiency regulations aimed at incandescent lightbulbs have come to be regarded by the political right as a classic example of Political Correctness Run Riot, and a rearguard action has been mounted against any attempt to regulate the incandescent bulb into retirement. If the incandescent bulb eventually dies the Republican right argues, it should be at the hands of the market, as God would surely intend.

On a different level, incandescents still have their sentimental defenders, as a far lovelier, much warmer source of light in every sense of the word ‘warmth.” There’s a passionate defence of the beauty of incandescent lightbulbs, right here.

This sentiment was especially rife during the mid 2000s, when the alternative bulbs on offer (a) gave out a harsh, cold light that turned your home into a supermarket once the damn things finally warmed up and achieved full brightness (b) were very, very expensive (c) were unreliable and blew out regularly, despite their claims to longevity and (d) contained mercury that posed a bigger environment risk/cost than any heat loss from an incandescent bulb. The mercury content in fluorescent bulbs (aka Compact Fluorescent Lamps or CFLs) has now been significantly diminished. Meaning : it is no longer necessary to grab the kids, vacate your home and call in the guys in the rubber suits if you happen to break one of those corkscrew CFL bulbs.

Do significant affordability/performance issues still remain with the alternative bulbs? They had better not, given the inexorable march towards the phasing out of incandescents. Alan McWilliam, whose long experience with his Lightbulb Man business has made him New Zealand’s resident expert on the subject has seen the future of lightbulbs : and right now, it looks to him like halogens. “Halogens are taking over from incandescents,” he told me. “Halogens last longer and are more energy efficient – and they can still give you a lot of the incandescent abilities, such as dimming. That’s probably where the bulb market is going. ” True, he concedes, there’s still a warmth-of-light difference. Incandescents still do look better, but the competing bulbs are gaining ground on that score as well, he assures me.

There may still be a stark price difference now, McWilliam adds, but that won’t last for much longer. Incandescents are already proving harder to get, and their price will go up as the production line volumes decrease. At the same time, halogens have been reducing in price. He’s picking the tipping point will be reached in about two years time. “That’s when I think halogens will come down to a price that will not be too dissimilar to what incandescents are today. Halogens will get cheaper, and incandescents are going to get more expensive..and you will have this crossover effect.”

Maybe so. But for stretched household budgets the price difference between incandescents on one hand and the alternatives are still substantial – let alone the price leap to the LEDs that in a decade or so will probably replace them all. OK for the comfortable middle class to preach the savings that accrue from the new generation of bulbs that will (allegedly) last so much longer – but if you’re struggling to meet the upfront costs such advice is small consolation. It will all depend on how quickly (and by how much) the cost of the alternatives to incandescents come down in price. Assuming that halogens eventually do displace incandescents, is there any reason to think they will ever be quite as cheap? Or will the CFL/halogen/LED makers seek to leverage their claims to longevity for what will be (by then) an essential product, and one susceptible to whatever price the market can be made to bear ?

The basic trade-off – if one can believe the ingenious advertisements put out by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) – is that the new types/generations of lightbulb will last far longer than incandescents, and use less energy to produce the same amount of light. Thus delivering a double win for the cash-strapped householder. All well and good, if those expensive new lightbulbs do perform as advertised. Yet there has been some anecdotal evidence that the alternative bulbs – halogens especially – tend to blow out with a regularity that belies some of the rosy claims to longevity that are supposed to justify their higher price. So, what’s going on here?

Well, McWilliam explains, our electricity supply is calibrated at 230- 235 volts approximately. “You’re not supposed to have more than a plus or minus 5% variation [from 230 bolts] in voltage. All light bulbs, but especially incandescents and halogens, are based on that variation not being exceeded.” It hasn’t been. In recognition of the problem, “some attempts are being made to bring out lightbulbs with a higher voltage range.” The problem being, the electricity supply in New Zealand tends to fluctuate, with routine surges above and below those numbers – thereby affecting all kinds of appliances, and killing lightbulbs at a quicker rate than might otherwise be expected.

“It doesn’t seem to affect fluorescents [CFLs] as much,” McWilliams says, but the surge problem does take its toll on halogens. “Halogens will last a bit longer than incandescents. Its just not a lot longer. Its like double the life expectancy of incandescents.” He stocks incandescents, halogens, CFLs, and LEDs. “The effects [of electricity surges] on the last two are not nearly as great.”

Okay, so when we see those amusing advertisements with the teddy bears, that damn the cheap and wasteful incandescents and extol the superior performance and longevity of other bulbs…those figures seem to have been taken from research carried out in an overseas laboratory, on a electricity grid less prone to lightbulb-killing fluctuations than the grid here in New Zealand. That being the case, can we really assume that we’d get the same lifetime performance from our investment in such lightbulbs, under local conditions? Evidently not. “All life expectancy on lightbulbs is based on laboratory conditions,” McWilliam says.” Its not based on the real world.”

Right. So what is the cash-in-hand difference – leaving aside for the moment, all of the claims to longevity? The upfront price differnces are still considerable. A 100watt incandescent bulb retails at about $1.90. The CFL 20 watt bulb which is the nearest equivalent, McWilliam says, retails at $9.90 for each bulb. (Some cheap and nasty brands of CFLs with a shorter life cycle do retail for as low as $3 a bulb.) The 70 watt halogen equivalent retails at $7.90 in its standard version, and $9.90 in its reflector version. As for the LED equivalent…while LEDs are expected to eventually come down in price, LEDs will currently set you back for $49.90, McWilliam estimates, for a good quality equivalent bulb, although he has noticed some $20 LEDs of inferior quality on the market.

While these price differences are converging, they are still significant – especially given that research by the Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA) shows that New Zealand has on average, 34.5 light bulbs per household. EECA estimates that New Zealand households spend an average of about $230 a year on lighting, based on an estimated average use of about 900kWh at a cost of 26 cents per kWh. (This is roughly in line with US estimates that the average home spends about 15% of its energy bill on lighting, or $US190 a month.) EECA also estimates that already, there are on average about eight or nine CFLs in every Kiwi home. LEDs however, currently account for less than 1% of the bulbs used for domestic lighting.

While EECA agrees with McWilliam that LEDs are the bulb of the future, it sees CFLs and halogens as the key transitional technologies that will replace the incandescent bulb in the interim. Bill Brander, EECa’s Lighting Priogramme Manager also sees a price crossover between incandescents and CFL/halogens occurring “in a couple of years.” As to whether the upfront cost (an obvious issue for lower income households) will ever reach the basement prices that consumers currently pay for incandescents, Brander is less re-assuring. Prices may have come down and quality may have gone up with CFLs in recent years, but he believes there will always be an inherent higher cost of production with CFLs and LEDs – and that’s regardless of any attempts to justify a price differential based on claims to longevity.

As for the harm done to lightbulbs by the surges on our electricity grid, Brander is willing to concede that the problem is genuine. The grid, nominally set at 230 bolts, is allowed to fluctuate by around 7.5% either way, which goes beyond the comfort zone of what the filaments in incandescents and halogens in particular can happily cope with. ( Ironically these power surges on the grid make incandescents burn more efficiently, but for a shorter time.) In Brander’s view, this issue of longevity-under-stress has as much to do with the brand of the bulb, as it does with the type of bulb in question, though he concedes that our grid does place a bigger strain on incandescents and halogens.

Clearly, the cost vs performance trade-off will become a budgeting issue for many New Zealand households over the next few years. All very well for the comfortably affluent to tout the wisdom of good and virtuous light bulbs that will – like good shoes – eventually reward the investment made in them. The problem is : many people can’t afford to buy good, expensive shoes or unduly expensive lightbulbs. There is an opportunity here for the lightbulb industry : to make a product that is not performs better, but is affordable to all. “Opportunity is missed by most people,” as Thomas Edison once said, “ because it is dressed in overalls, and looks like work.” Far easier to make it look like marketing, and compel people to pay the difference.