In defence of banning the bulb

I see Canterbury University economist Eric Crampton politely disagrees with my post on the failure to ban incandescent light bulbs. I’d like to comment on a couple of the points he raises. The first concerns the non-priced carbon embodied in the production and distribution of fluorescent and LED bulbs, and the possibility that it may be so large as to negate the advantages of lower carbon emissions during the lifetime of the bulbs.

Crampton admitted he had no clue, but assumed that the more complex efficient bulbs would have a higher carbon footprint in their manufacture than the incandescents. However, he allowed that the longer life of the efficient bulbs probably gave them the overall advantage. I had no clue either, though I’m familiar with the need to take embedded carbon into account when making comparisons and guess I assumed that was not something that had been overlooked in the advocacy of CFLs and LEDs. However I had a look to see what I could find, and came across this assessment of CFLs from a writer initially inclined to be sceptical about them, and this report on LEDs. It doesn’t look to be an issue.

Crampton’s second point was that an ETS which is functioning well removes the need for any regulatory interference in the market. “If power prices incorporate carbon charges via the ETS, then there’s no real economic case for pushing consumers to choose bulbs they don’t want.” He goes on to say that if the ETS isn’t producing the desired effect the answer is to improve the ETS, not make piecemeal interventions. It crossed my mind when I was writing the post that if the ETS was functioning at a level designed to drastically reduce carbon emissions there mightn’t be a need to bemoan the Government’s action on incandescents. But it is not functioning at that level, and the Government seems determined to ensure that it never will, or will only so far in the future as to be much too late.

Reining in carbon emissions has become a matter of high urgency, far outweighing concerns about government intervention in the economy. For that matter the ETS itself is an intervention, designed in its original intention to make markets assume the environmental costs which left to themselves they ignore. I see no reason why it should not be accompanied by other government directives which ensure that markets are not permitted to operate in areas that clearly slow the transition to a decarbonised economy.  We accept government mandates in many parts of the economy such as the compulsory insulation of new buildings and we rue failures in regulation such as allowed the emergence of leaky buildings.

Banning incandescents does not to my mind invoke the spectre of a centrally planned economy. It’s simply part of boundary setting for markets to operate within, a proper function of government and one buttressed by the urgency of the climate crisis.

26 thoughts on “In defence of banning the bulb”

  1. Economists assume perfect markets, but the market is too small to be perfect. If supermarket shelves are filled with inefficent cheap bulbs then that is what people will buy. Even if someone is clued up and knows that CFLs or LEDs are cheaper overall the difficulty of finding the right product or the extra price put on them by shops because of slow sales makes them less worthwhile.

    Simply put: if incandescents were banned, CFLs would be cheaper and more LEDS would be on display.

    Eventually incandescents will disappear as other countries move away from them, but to hasten the process there has to be some push beyond simple economics to overcome the hidden subsidies.

  2. Classical economics also assumes well informed rational agents. Unfortunately we tend to be ill informed habitual agents. Changing habitual behaviour requires systems changes and strong signals. Get the bulbs off the shelves….

  3. Suggestion: do not ban incandescents, just raise the standards. For instance, see California.

    The California Energy Commission and especially the California Air Resources Board are extremely influential entities in the US, not just CA.

    See also American Physical Society Energy Efficiency Report.
    p.22 of the long report is useful.

    The authors of the report are serious, including two Nobel physicists I know (Burt Richter and Arno Penzias.) This was a few years ago, and LEDs have come on fast since, but they do talk about CFLs.

    This is a book by a friend of mine, a local venture capitalist. At one point Elton bought hordes of LEDs to try out.

    On a bigger scale, here’s Sustainability Base at nearby NASA Ames, which is fun to visit if you get the chance. It was fun to talk to the construction outfit (Swiinerton) at another meeting, folks who quite excited about what they’d learned and were applying it to building other buildings that were good workplaces and efficient.

  4. I bought one of these for my school: Ecoinivation hand crank light display
    It is a powerful reminder of why need to get away from incandescent bulbs.
    Hand cranking 100W to drive a standard bulb is only possible for minutes, driving a CFL bulb however seems almost effortless in comparison.
    The students “feel” for themselves what it takes to power a light.

    Perhaps we should simply tax incandescent bulbs until they are more expensive than the alternatives. We tax tobacco but we do not ban it either. There may be legitimate needs to run incandescent bulbs for certain applications.

  5. Who is Ben at The Watt, who writes this opinion piece on lifetime study of energy input into CFLs ?
    Ben who calls a pcb and its associated components a microchip and whose link to a Danish study by Dutch researchers doesn’t appear to work.

    I’ve an open mind but that piece doesn’t convince.

  6. Here is a very extensive study comparing LED, CFL and incandescent light bulbs in regards to energy and all environment effects and their total life cycle use of energy and resources.

    Life-Cycle Assessment of Energy and Environmental Impacts of LED Lighting Products

    It is not only assessing LEDs but also CFLs and contrasts them with incandescent bulbs. LED’s and CFLs come out clear ahead of incandescent bulbs.

    Clearly the future will be with the next generation of LEDs.

  7. If the future is with LED then maybe we should ban CFL bulbs as well, just to be sure of the potential mercury issues with CFL as detailed on the Ministry website

    1. In a decade, perhaps less, when the LED revolution has delivered lower cost and a wider array of bulbs a move away from fluorescent lights containing Mercury might become an argument worth considering. But the main gain for now is the abandonment of incandescent bulbs which emit most of their radiation in the invisible IR bands wasting much of the energy put into them.

      Of cause any true libertarian loggerhead will object to any and all regulations and will do his very best to fight for the right to throw energy out of the window for all freedom loving cowboys in the great wild west…. “My freedom over alles, over alles in the world….” 😉

  8. Ahhh, just get on and ban the bloody things! 😉 (OK, it’s actually a very abrupt standards-based phase-out a la John M – but it amounts to the same thing!)

    Seriously, people, the palaver about this kind of stuff is extraordinary. But but but but only The Markets must save us! It doesn’t matter if people have inefficient bulbs because they might choose to buy windpower or they could simultaneously switch one bar off on the radiator! Compact fluoros – as opposed to the other ones we’ve lived with for decades – have magical powers to cause harm that only those wicked wind turbines could hope to exceed. Etc. etc.

    I live in the California of Australia: South Australia. Not only don’t we offer crap, inefficient bulbs, at 7% of Australia’s population we produce 48% of its wind power (25% of our electricity came from wind last year), we’ve banned plastic shopping bags (you’d be amaaaazed* how crappy disposable marine wildlife stranglers instantly became central to the rights and freedoms and happiness of some), we have a 10c levy on recyclable containers (that was also going to throw us back into the dark ages and cause lakes of tears before bedtime), and we have the highest uptake of rooftop solar PV of all the National Electricity Market states.

    And we reduced our electricity demand by 5% last year! We’ve still got a long way to go, of course, but at least we’re heading somewhere…

    And all thanks to a long history of a popular interventionist state. No wonder we gave women the vote in 1894 (the year after NZ!)

    *actually; if you’d been following the climate debate, no, you wouldn’t…

  9. To begin with:
    Light bulbs don’t burn coal or release CO2 gas!
    Power plants might – and might not
    If there’s a problem – Deal with the problem. “How bans are wrongly justified”

    New Zealand nearly all electricity (c. 75%) is hydropower and geothermal – no CO2 emissions, also not from any new wind/solar plants.
    Besides: Lighting usage is largely off-peak after 7pm on DEFRA (UK) figures, no doubt similar in NZ
    = No need to “dam up more NZ rivers” from Johnny using an incandescent instead of CFL in his bedroom, as electricity under-utilized at such times anyway.

    Even if was using coal and CO2 releasing,
    the base loading nature of trad coal plants makes them slow to turn down and up in offpeak hours – even applies to newer cycling coal plants, which have less emissions anyway (APTECH referenced on day-night coal cycle operation)

    1. lighthouse
      It is easy to bury the small in the large and claim it to be of no significance. I think this applies particularly to energy calcs. Humanity’s total energy generation (interpreted as heat), for example, is trivial compared to the energy imbalance at the top of the atmosphere. Not trivial is that energy trapped by the greenhouse gasses generated by our use of fossil fuels. It is there that all measures must be applied. Every little bit helps a little.

      However, change the scale; the energy calcs tend to become compelling when one contemplates installation of solar PV, say, as a major house supply. Then CFLs are much more interesting than tugsten, LEDs even more interesting, quite apart from other measures like insulation, passive solar heating, heat storage etc.


      1. Thanks Noel
        Unfortunately with NZ, light bulbs and CO2 emissions it’s the reverse if anything: As Finnish, Icelandic and Canadian studies show (and as referenced via previous links) the heat replacement effect of incandescents means that if a fossil fuel heating source is used with a “clean” electric source for lighting (as common in those countries and in NZ), then CO2 emissions actually increase.
        Overall the every-little-helps would hardly apply anyway for reasons given.

        There are many good ways of reducing energy use and emissions, as also linked:
        It’s just that light bulb regulation is not one of them.
        As you say, if people want to use other lighting like CFLs and LEDs, why not – but that is different from a society obligation to do so, when society savings analysis should apply.

  10. (continued) That’s just the start of it.
    Certainly – people can save energy and money on changing their most commonly used bulbs!
    But Society laws should be about Society savings, not what Johhny wants to use in his bedroom….
    and Society savings are negligible, a fraction of 1% energy or c. 1% grid use, still not taking account of life cycle (manufacture etc) and other bulb use factors, or power plant operational factors, as per the last comment
    Cambridge University Network, Scientific Alliance

    ” The total reduction in EU energy use 0.54 x 0.8 x 0.76% = 0.33%
    This figure is almost certainly an overestimate…
    Which begs the question: is it really worth it?
    The problem is that legislators are unable to tackle the big issues of energy use effectively, so go for the soft target of a high profile domestic use of energy …this is gesture politics.”

    Cambridge University Network under Sir Alec Broers, Chairman of theHouse of Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Scientific Alliance newsletter, involving Physics dept professors etc
    Similar figures from other EU sources, and for that matter the US Dept of Energy, grid electricity data breakdown (they use 4 categories), again as linked above.
    New Zealand is hardly different….

    As it happens, worldwide, GE, Philips, Osram/Sylvania have openly lobbied for and got bans on patent expired generic cheap unprofitable products, as also referenced….
    Why welcome being told what you can or can’t make 😉

  11. Incidentally,
    Even if targeting bulbs was so great, new energy saving alternatives could be helped to market (but without further subsidies) to increase – rather than reduce – competition to give desirable products, remembering that “Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run” products can always be marketed and sold if they are good enough – think of Energizer (Duracell) battery rabbit or long-lasting washing up liquid commercials, no doubt such or similar seen in NZ also.

    And again: Taxation is also better than bans to address any so-called “market failure” since the tax can be used to lower the price of alternatives, so market is evened out, NZ Govmt can also get some money, choice is kept, people not just hit by tax in having cheaper alternatives etc – and everyone wins, compared to bans.
    That said, Tax is also clearly wrong for reasons given – just, once again, a better alternative than bans.

  12. Bill
    “California of Australia: South Australia”

    I have noticed the parallel, why the difference from surrounding states I have always wondered? I do suppose that wind is a particular advantage. I met way back a Melbourne (?) doctor who, with others, land sailed parallel to the railway from Melbourne to Perth if that’s the rail route. He said that a good fresh wind was nearly always available. The trains dropped supplies just ahead of them. OT I know but …


  13. If the government wishes to encourage better energy usage then it could set an example by turning some lights off after hours.

    On a recent business trip to Wellington, I stayed in a hotel next to the IRD office, where every single light was on all night.

  14. Lighting Issues

    For years I have been subscribed to comercial LED lighting stuff, almost as frequent as spam, and have also been following matters of light pollution and some of the growing literature researching health and environmental issues related to light.

    With all types of lighting, discrimination as to appropriate use is required, though the lighting industry will only reluctantly acknowledge the issues being quite happy to pedal myths and play on fears as much as any other industries (‘light deters criminals’ for example).

    Below are some notions I’ve picked up but I would have to take some time to hunt out the relevant studies again.

    All Lights are specified by colour temperature, the choices usually being “cool white” 5000°K +, and “warm white” 2700-3000°K, and then there is UV.

    Cool white means lots of blue. It is choice where high visual acuity is important , lower power can be a trade off, however the frequencies at the blue end can be bad news for night life, including we diurnal humans who invade nocturnal space with our lighting devices.

    There is a connection between the eyes and the pineal gland that tells that gland night has arrived so maybe an hour later it is ready to release melatonin and send us to sleep. Cold white is a no no before sleep or in areas you use during sleep periods. bedrooms, bathrooms, toilet. You probably do not want it in the lounge either – why show up all those skin blemishes. So choose warm colours to minimise sleep deprivation and cancer risk. Avoid working night shifts under fluorescents. Live away from overlit business districts, sports grounds in use at night, and industrial premises. Protest strongly at light invasion from external sources including the fearful neighbour’s security lighting advertising they are worth burgling and making the job easier for the crims! If you have trouble waking in the morning by all means use cool white to turn off the melatonin and help waking. Remember the computer screen and the TV can be sources of blue and UV radiation too

    Consequently I use two 18 watt 600mm fluorescents to respectively iluminate a work table where high acuity is needed and the kitchen where
    a flood of light is needed as well – replacing 150 watt tungsten bulbs.
    I also use rarely a cool white 12v 1 watt LED downlight over a small work surface in the conservatory (passive solar heating). I use two 12v 1 watt warm white LED downlights over a larger table in the conservatory that could seat six. They provide quite enough light to share meals or read by.
    I have a 2.4 watt strip light to install yet and will be progressively changing to LED use.

    CFLs tend to degenerate with age toward orange so when they become too dim to be useful in lounge and bedroom I retire them to small or little used spaces where they can eventuall fizz out. I have been using CFLs almost exclusively for 20 years. In that time just one has been broken but I confess I have a box of dead bulbs because I always forget when the hazmobile is nearby. Supermarkets should have collection points.

    LEDs can be tailored for particular applications, for specific frequencies or even an even full frequency range and can be dimmed. Pass by fixtures promoted as lasting 50k or 100k hours or with suspiciously short life times no better than CFLs. Why? The former figures belong to laboratory conditions, the latter means a poor luminaire. LEDs do not generate much heat but they are virtually point sources and degrade quickly if that heat is not conducted away. Hence the design of the luminaire is critical to realisation of a lengthy life time.

    LEDs are highly directional. This is an advantage with focussed outdoor lighting as full cutoff can be achieved with respect to the sky, to street and property boundaries. LED street lighting is an intensively developing market. Every city still starts off with street trials. I note a steady increase in full cutoff lighting about Auckland – not becessarily LED based. Look for horizontally mounted flat glass luminaires.

    Some LED manufactures are currently striving to overcome what they call blue overshoot. A Soraa MR16 full spectrum LED lamp claimed to achieve this is about to come to market.

    Unfortunately the efficiency of LEDs often suggests we can use more of them for the same energy use so light pollution and energy drain is not necessarily diminished by LED use.

    Our world is ecologically divided into night and day. For all lives of night and day our excessive use of lights has consequences we should consider carefully. Light pollution also tends to dimish atmospheric cleansing chemistry that goes on at night. Search “Urban Light Pollution Boosts Air Pollution”

    You can see there are big matters here too. The person purchasing a light probably knows nothing of them, may not even be aware of the majesty of the night sky that we could have did we think more about how we use light and where necessary regulate. Climate change can be mitigated a little with the same actions to protect the environment.


  15. On Lights left on in office buildings

    I’m with you there andyS. Just require unused lights to be turned off in all office blocks, save enough power to threaten SOE partial privatization, good stuff, reduce light polution and bird stike, energy and environment in one go. I’m all for it.


    1. Good to know I have some agreement, Noel!
      The other issue is with power devices on standby, e.g TV sets, playstations etc. These consume quite a bit of power

      I had an idea to wire up a house so that standby devices like these could all get turned off in one fell swoop, leaving on only essential items like fridges and freezers. This could even be on a timer.

      I’d be interested to know from an electrician whether this is possible and at what cost

  16. About discrimination using LEDs and lighting generally with respect to health and environmental effects it seems that a discussion by a panel of experts on light pollution has been underway, reported by Science Daily Sep 10. Reinforces what I posted above, particularly with reference to blue light.


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