EurActiv - Letters to the Editor

Sir,

Regarding ‘MEP goes on defensive over light bulb ban‘:

Eco-design statement December 8:

“The regulation [to ‘phase out’ incandescent lights] is only one of the Ecodesign measures that will be adopted by the Commission over the coming months, targeting many more products such as consumer electronics, white goods or heating appliances.”

Are we living in the European Union or are we living in the Soviet Union?

I am going to use light bulbs as an example, but clearly the basic logic here applies also to the bans mooted on plasma screens, electric fires, etc.

Safe Products

What is easily forgotten is that this is the start of extraordinary consumer bans on safe products.

We are not talking about banning lead paint or fireworks here. Light bulbs – unlike other lights, in particular CFLs (compact, fluorescent “energy saving” lights) have been safely used for over 100 years.

Light bulbs – unlike cars – do not emit any gases.

Power stations do. Electricity generation and distribution is where the problem lies.

Popular

Around 9 out of 10 lights purchased in EU countries are ordinary light bulbs, according to the European Commission’s own research. These are what people want to use.

Ordinary (incandescent) light bulbs and halogens have a unique light quality, different from other lights.
Note that most incandescents, including halogens are in the banning proposal, contrary to what MEPs have been told. [See the December 8 technical proposal itself (via energy documents).]

All non-clear incandescents are to be banned. Only some lower wattage, clear ones will survive, but again, most of these will disappear in the coming years.

Old people have used light bulbs for years and are familiar and comfortable with their warm, bright light quality.

Moreover, note that halogens are still different from ordinary light bulbs. They have a whiter light quality and a different appearance. They need more handling care, and may need transformers and different fittings, etc.

Getting consumers to try CFLs and LEDs

CFL and LED lights have their uses, but the light quality is different. Certainly with CFLs, price has been an issue, but with other products, people do buy expensive alternatives too. Otherwise all we’d have are the cheaper alternatives.

Banning light bulbs for being cheap is ridiculous (“our campaigns have failed and we must phase out incandescent lights otherwise people will not buy CFLs”).

Hello? If CFL/LED manufacturers got off their backsides and advertised their wares like everyone else, instead of relying on dull government ‘savings’ campaigns and clumsy bans, then no doubt consumers would see for themselves “how much better new CFL and LED lights are”. Of course if that’s true, why ban light bulbs?

Banning a popular product hits consumers. Banning an unpopular product makes no sense.

The mercury Issue

CFL lights contain mercury vapour, typically 4mg. There are stringent disposal recommendations for broken lights, as issued by the UK Dept of Environment (DEFRA), and the US Environmental Protection Agency, while EU authorities seem very quiet about this.

Power station mercury release is not an excuse. The yarn keeps getting repeated that power stations give out more mercury using a light bulb than the 4mg or so that a fluorescent light contains.

If that was true, perhaps there might be a will to do something about it, rather than just to use it as an excuse to ban bulbs.

As it happens, that is an old North American argument relating to untreated emissions. The argument also assumed that all power was coal derived. In fact, it is about 1/3 in the UK, for example, 1/5 in Ireland, and of course substantially less in many other countries.

The fact is that mercury release has been treatable for a long time by using wet scrubbers (chemical, not human, I hasten to add), and more recently also with cheap injection and photochemical techniques. Coal gasification has existed for a long time too (in California since the 1980s at Cool Water).

There are around 4 billion light bulbs in the EU (lighting industry data 2007). Even a partial replacement with lights that leak mercury on dump sites around Europe is surely a cause for concern.

It is time for politicians to get their act together and set up deposit-refund schemes for these lights, ban or no ban (the reported reluctance to do this is that any perceived price increase works against the EU ban supporters’ logic).

Light Bulb Heat Benefit

The heat benefit of light bulbs is often ridiculed, even by so-called experts. Light bulbs are really cheap heat bulbs that ‘waste’ light, 95% is heat.

The more right the opponents of light bulbs are, the more wrong they are. Research by the University of Toronto (2007) and elsewhere has shown that the cheap light bulbs in ordinary use can be more economical than fluorescent (‘energy saving’)

Lights that heat rooms are welcome, because less ordinary heating is needed. A half-covered light bulb near the ceiling may not seem like much. However, as sticking your hand well above a heater will show you, room heat substantially rises towards the ceiling (convection) and spreads downwards from there. 20 100W bulbs can be compared to a 2kW heater, as lighting them up will show you.

A Ban on 100W+ Bulbs is especially wrong

Ironically, a ban on 100W+ light bulbs is particularly wrong. Such bulbs have especially good brightness as well as heat benefit, with 100W bulbs costing the same as other bulbs.

Fluorescent lights dim with age, are harder to make bright in small compact tubular form. Bright lights are more expensive than other ones, and encapsulation (recommended for close use) reduces brightness.

The EU policy of tariff-lowered Chinese imports for European rebranding to keep down prices also means that brightness retention, lifespan and other issues remain with these lights.

Emissions

Light bulbs – unlike cars – do not give out any gases. Banning them doesn’t solve anything.

The logic of problem-solving by cutting the use of consumer products is that we all go and live in caves and use candles (100% electricity bill light savings), thereby saving zillions of euros and megatons of gas. As long as we don’t bring any cows with us. Or certain officials, who need to travel all the time. To save the planet.

In usage, the mentioned heat benefit of light bulbs means they don’t necessarily waste emissions. Meanwhile, outside of usage, CFLs cost more because they cause more emissions.
In their manufacture, in their transport from the fewer areas in which they are economical to make (China), and in their transport to recycling plants, and the reprocessing there.

Of course, if CFLs don’t get recycled, they leak mercury on dump sites instead.

The savings and emissions arguments are wrong for many other reasons:

Why should households in virtually emission-free France or Sweden, or for that matter in emission-free Finland or Austria, have their product choices banned? Why should the ever-increasing number of emission-free households have their choices banned?

So we deal with the problem, in generation and distribution, in efficient ways, which also makes non-emitting nuclear and renewable energy more easily available to consumers. Moreover, it makes such energy cheaper, through direct competition between private service providers in public networks.

While some initiatives will pay for themselves, funding is still needed.

Tax not ban: Big government Income

Raising the price of fossil-fuel electricity is a quick way of cutting such emissions, maintaining consumer freedom and paying to deal with emissions. As a tax can also help fund green jobs for energy and insulation changes to poorer households, negating price increases for them. Nonetheless, it’s politically problematic, if good cheap non-emitting electricity options are unavailable.

Taxation can also, for example, be applied to electrical products according to efficiency rating, like on cars, but with VAT changes so that ‘green’ A-rated products are cheaper than today. This is politically important, so that consumers are not unduly hit (and of course a taxed product can still be used by consumers, unlike with a ban on it).

Governments still make money, since consumers nonetheless are attracted to inefficient products
(they have to have big attractions otherwise no-one would buy them: think sports cars, or here, say fan heaters, on the ‘cheap to buy but expensive to use’ principle).

In a way, the system is like paying extra for product recycling, except that in using inefficient products, you are actually paying to solve the emissions problem, so a tax need not be permanent.

Of course, governments can also use the money in these bad economic times for health, education or other spending: money that they don’t get with a ban. Any enduring tax means that the manufacture of ‘green’ products is stimulated on the market without clumsy bans or industry subsidies.

For example:2 billion light bulbs are sold annually in the EU (lighting industry data 2007).
While they are light-with-heat efficient (and could be rated as such), they are a finance minister’s dream:
cheap, popular and ubiquitous, with a reasonable turnover. Even a large tax leaves them cheap.

Billions of euros of easy money for European Governments in these bad economic times. Real income, unlike what a ban gives to governments. And that’s just light bulbs.

Think what you’re doing, MEPs!

We need more clear thinking in Europe. We need top-down politics, dealing with emission problems themselves and respecting European consumers and their choices.

People will only react to a a ban when the reality dawns on them. Politicians forget that people spend half their lives under artificial lights.

There is going to be a lot of panic and extensive hoarding of a popular product which (like cross-border and internet purchases) works against any emission savings.

Any non-EU purchases of electrical products also reduce government tax income and shop revenues (tax differences alone are less of an incentive to buy abroad, especially with light bulbs that remain relatively cheap).

A lot of public resentment abounds, all the more so when there are obviously alternative ways forward. If people really believed in the lighting savings arguments, they wouldn’t buy light bulbs today.

It will hardly make light bulb ban-supporting MEPs more popular in the upcoming European elections.

Dr. Peter Thornes

Ceolas.net

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Comments

  1. This is poor populist drivel. Lets deal with your points in order:

    1) The Commission proposal will continue to allow more efficient halogen light bulbs, which produce the same light quality as incandescent bulbs but are twice as efficient. This also helps those who suffer sensitivity to CFLs. In fact, people suffer health issues from all light sources (artificial and otherwise). The light source with the least reported negative health impacts, according to research, is LED bulbs. So, in fact, this measure is driving us towards the healthiest (and most efficient) technology: LED light.

    2) It is disingenuous to argue that incandescents are cheaper. They are grossly inefficiency meaning that they push up your electricity bill. The most efficient CFL and LED bulbs can save you up to twelve euro over a year on electricities bills (based on current average utilities costs).

    3) The extra power needed for incandescent bulbs leads to massive extra mercury emissions. Obviously there is mercury in CFLs (although 1/100th the amount in a thermometer) and this means they should be properly recycled and that is where we need to focus our energy – improving facilities and information. Moreover, most manufacturers have improved their product – those with the increasingly standard protective casing are extremely difficult to break.

    4) There is perhaps no more inefficient and wasteful way to heat a room than through a light bulb! The savings in utilities bills from an efficient bulb offset any marginal heat ‘benefit’ by multiples. In addition, incandescents are also used in air conditioned buildings, meaning they add to the cooling power needed – all-told: bulbs are not designed for heating.

    5) We need to do everything within our power to reduce emissions. According to the annual McKinsey analysis, phasing out inefficient light bulbs is the single cheapest of all measures that can be taken to reduce emissions. We should start by picking off the low-hanging fruit that can be instantly plucked. Phasing out inefficient bulbs is a no-brainer for emissions reduction policies.

    Estimates suggests this measure alone will save an average household 50 euro off its energy bill. Hardly something that voters or citizens would be opposed to in these economically austere times. Hopefully my MEP will not listen to non-sensical populist polemic like your article ‘Dr’ Thornes.

  2. 1) The Commission proposal will continue to allow more efficient halogen light bulbs, which produce the same light quality as incandescent bulbs but are twice as efficient. This also helps those who suffer sensitivity to CFLs. In fact, people suffer health issues from all light sources (artificial and otherwise). The light source with the least reported negative health impacts, according to research, is LED bulbs. So, in fact, this measure is driving us towards the healthiest (and most efficient) technology: LED light.

    2) It is disingenuous to argue that incandescents are cheaper. They are grossly inefficiency meaning that they push up your electricity bill. The most efficient CFL and LED bulbs can save you up to twelve euro over a year on electricities bills (based on current average utilities costs).

    3) The extra power needed for incandescent bulbs leads to massive extra mercury emissions. Obviously there is mercury in CFLs (although 1/100th the amount in a thermometer) and this means they should be properly recycled and that is where we need to focus our energy – improving facilities and information. Moreover, most manufacturers have improved their product – those with the increasingly standard protective casing are extremely difficult to break.

    4) There is perhaps no more inefficient and wasteful way to heat a room than through a light bulb! The savings in utilities bills from an efficient bulb offset any marginal heat ‘benefit’ by multiples. In addition, incandescents are also used in air conditioned buildings, meaning they add to the cooling power needed – all-told: bulbs are not designed for heating.

    5) We need to do everything within our power to reduce emissions. According to the annual McKinsey analysis, phasing out inefficient light bulbs is the single cheapest of all measures that can be taken to reduce emissions. We should start by picking off the low-hanging fruit that can be instantly plucked. Phasing out inefficient bulbs is a no-brainer for emissions reduction policies.

    Estimates suggests this measure alone will save an average household 50 euro off its energy bill. Hardly something that voters or citizens would be opposed to in these economically austere times. Hopefully my MEP will not listen to non-sensical populist polemic like your article ‘Dr’ Thornes.

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