The Light Bulb

SUBHEAD: The EU hopes that the ban on incandescent bulbs will reduce lighting energy up to 80%. By Dan Fletcher on 02 September 2009 in Time -,8599,1919956,00.html

Across Europe, it's just about lights out for the humble incandescent bulb. The European Union began phasing out incandescents on Sept. 1, banning stores from buying new stock.

image above: "Idea Bulb" photo by Felipe

It's all part of an effort to drive consumers toward a better bulb: compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which last 10 times longer while consuming less than a third of the electricity as incandescents. At up to $10 each, CFLs are more expensive, but experts say they pay for themselves in energy savings in just a few months. The E.U. is even touting the switch as an economic stimulus; experts estimate that the swap to CFL will save customers €5 billion annually. Bucks for bulbs, anyone?

Though Thomas Edison is usually cited as the father of the lightbulb, it's more accurate to give Edison credit as the creator of the first commercially viable lightbulb. As early as 1820, inventors were honing in on the principles that would lead to the first electric illumination. An English inventor, Joseph Swan, took their early work and developed the basis of the modern electric lightbulb in 1879 — a thin paper or metal filament surrounded by a glass-enclosed vacuum. When electricity runs through the filament, the bulb glows. Edison refined the design, trying filaments made out of platinum and cotton before eventually settling on carbonized bamboo, capable of burning for more than 1,200 hours. With Edison's design — and the settlement of a lawsuit with Swan that resulted in the two inventors' joining forces in 1883 — electric lighting became viable for the first time.

The development of the lightbulb sparked the spread of electric power in the U.S. Edison was behind the creation of the first commercial power plant in 1882, and New York City had electricity by 1892. By the late 1930s, the Rural Electrification Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, had brought electric lighting to nearly every corner of the country. Development didn't stop on the bulb, either: researchers have honed Edison and Swan's design further, refining the filament by using tungsten metal and filling the vacuum with gas, both of which increase the life span of a bulb. Still, even modern bulbs are inefficient — less than 6% of the energy used by a bulb goes into producing light. The rest is given off as heat.

CFLs are designed to address this inefficiency. The technology for the bulbs was developed as early as the 1890s as lights, but General Electric perfected the design during the U.S. energy crisis in the 1970s. CFLs use electricity to excite mercury vapor, which produces ultraviolet light that is filtered through a coating on the bulb to become visible light. GE shelved the design, as the bulbs would have required new manufacturing plants, but the specs leaked over the years. Though assembling a CFL is still costly, the bulbs are environmentally friendly and save consumers money in the long run, forming the basis of the E.U.-mandated switch.

But this mass changing of the bulbs isn't universally appreciated. CFLs emit light in a different spectrum than their incandescent counterparts, producing a light that's "cooler" — tinged a light blue or green — than the yellowish hue of an incandescent. Many people complain that the effect is less aesthetically pleasing. CFLs also have environmental issues because of the danger of mercury exposure if the bulbs should break — making disposal tricky. And some people allege that constant exposure to fluorescent light causes health problems, though experts are largely skeptical of the claim.

These concerns, however, take a backseat to those over lightbulbs' environmental impact — replacing a single incandescent bulb with a CFL in every U.S. household would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.5 million cars off the road. The U.S. plans to follow Europe's lead and outlaw incandescents in 2012. Still, at least one light will stay on: the Centennial Light in Livermore, Calif., has been shining continuously in the same firehouse since 1901, making it the longest-burning bulb on the planet.

see also: Light Emitting Diodes Compact Fluorescent Lamps 80 per cent less energy use


Panta Rei said...

Yes, an amazing history behind the bulb

Makes you think:

Strange to ban a product with such a long safe record of use!
Normally products are banned for being unsafe to use.
We are not talking about lead paint here!

Even if people mention emissions:
Do light bulbs give out the gases?
No - unlike most cars, they don't.

It becomes even stranger, when a product (CFL, energy saving light) which might have been banned under "normal" considerations, in containing mercury
(also given the world wide mercury ban recently agreed) -is actually pushed as the main replacement.

But there's plenty more that's odd.

The strange and unpublicised EU and industrial politics that went on before the ban took place:


Europeans, like Americans, choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 9 times out of 10 (light industry data 2007-8)
Banning what people want gives the supposed savings - no point in banning an impopular product!

If new LED lights -or improved CFLs- are good,
people will buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
If they are not good, people will not buy them - no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
The arrival of the transistor didn't mean that more energy using radio tubes were banned... they were bought less anyway.

Supposed savings don't hold up for many reasons:
Just a few examples here:
CFL Lifespan is lab tested in 3 hour cycles. That does not correspond to real life usage and numerous tests have shown real life type on-off switching reducing lifespan. Leaving lights on of course also uses up energy, as does the switch-on power surge with CFLs
Also, CFLs get dimmer with age, effectively reducing lifespan

Power factor: Few people know that CFLs typically have a power factor of 0.5 - that means that power stations use up twice as much power than what the CFL rating shows. This has to do with current and voltage phase differences set up when CFLs are used.
Although consumers do not see this on their meters, they will of course have to pay for it on their bills.
This is explained with official links including to US Dept of Energy here:

Heat benefit from using ordinary incandescent light bulbs
--not so much in Hawaii, admittedly!
Room heat substantially rises to the ceiling (convection) and spreads downwards from there. Another half of more of supposed switch savings are negated in temperate climates, as shown via the above link with US and other research references.

if energy use does fall with light bulb and other proposed efficiency bans and electricity companies make less money,
they’ll simply push up the electricity bills to compensate:
(especially since power companies often have their own grids with little supply competition)
Energy regulators can hardly deny any such cost covering exercise...

Panta Rei said...


As said, a light bulb gives out no CO2 gas...
Power stations might not either:
Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution.

A direct effective way to deal with emissions (for all else they contain too, whatever about CO2):

The Taxation alternative
A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use.
We are not talking about banning lead paint here.
Even for those who remain pro-ban, taxation to reduce consumption would make much more sense, since governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.
A few euros/dollars tax that reduces the current sales (EU like the USA 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa)
raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice.
It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products.

However, taxation is itself unjustified, it is simply better than bans also for ban proponents, in overall emission lowering terms.

Of course an EU ban is underway, but in phases, with reviews in a couple of years time...
maybe the rising controversy of it will influence American debate?

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