News headlines today are saying that Australia will introduce legislation to phase out incandescent lightbulbs within 3 years. They’ll be replaced by Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), sometimes called “swirls”. Generally, one CFL eliminates the need for 7 to 8 normal bulbs – they last 5 to 10 times longer and use 20-25% of the energy. The downside? They’re more expensive, as much as 5-6 times more today and the light they emit is a colder, bluer tinge than most of us are used to. But, a $3 bulb pays for itself in about 5 months through reduced energy usage.
After reading an article in Fast Company a couple of months ago, I’ve been on the hunt for these bulbs. This article persuaded me that if every American used just one bulb in their home, the USA would be able to turn off two power stations (or not build two new ones), saving enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. Apparently a typical US home, says Fast Company, has 50-100 bulbs. Take the low estimate – replace 50 bulbs in a house and, if the maths is right, turn off 100 power stations.
As volumes grow, retail prices will fall. In 3 years or less, a swirl could cost the same as a standard bulb today. Last year, the US bought 2 billion lightbulbs. Perhaps they last 12 months. Over the next three years, suppose they switched to swirls, as conventional bulbs fail – production of 2 billion is a pretty good way to drive down costs (ask memory chip makers). Come in Governor Schwarzenegger, your time has come – an ideal place to start would be California.
FC quote Walmart as wanting to be at the forefront of this move, selling 100 million CFLs over the coming 12 months. All of a sudden, the shelf space allocated to bulbs reduces (people are buying 7x-8x fewer bulbs) and the space can be devoted to higher margin products; power consumption goes down; prices come down and everyone feels good about themselves. Maybe we even save the world.
There’s plenty to solve though. In my hunting around over the last few weeks, I haven’t seen a single retail store selling this new variety – plenty sell, in very limited quantities which I don’t believe are as efficient. New designs will have to be worked out that fit lampshades better – I don’t think we want everyone buying new lampshades just for the new bulbs. With bigger sales will come more research, more thinking about disposal (CFLs contain traces of mercury), better designs, longer lives and so more environmental benefits. The only place to find these bulbs seems to be online. It hardly seems to be the point to ship them if I can walk to the local store and get them instead (although, granted, they had to be shipped there in the first place). But if they’re going to enter mainstream consciousness, they need presence in stores – pride of place even.
There are some good sites that have already cottoned on to this of course. BanTheBulb is one of the British ones, with this set of goals
– Increase the cost of incandescent light bulbs
– Reduce the sales tax (VAT) on CFLs from 17.5% to 5%
– Ban the sale of incandescents by a specific date Help the poor to replace their incandescents
– Help the poor to save money on their bills Encourage the responsible recycling of CFLs
– Include light bulbs in the EU’s Eco Directive Explain the benefits of greater energy efficiency
– Accelerate the uptake of available technologies
Government policy appears to have already moved this way: Energy Efficiency Commitment 2002 – 2005: consultation proposals, have been set out by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and will come into being in April 2002. Measures proposed include some 26 million CFLs provided to customers with supplier contributions to their cost.
HM Treasury are also in on the act: A reduced rate of VAT on efficient (A rated) bulbs and dedicated fittings could help transform the market to efficient CFLs and other efficient lighting. It would send a strong price signal to consumers, retailers and manufacturers, reducing the price gap between efficient and inefficient lighting
I must be way behind on this. My house is all halogen bulbs (which I believe are about 10-15% more efficient than standard bulbs, but that’s nowhere near as good as CFL). So I’m having a look around to see if I can make a shift somehow.
Maybe what we need is a petition? The Downing Street has 2 petitions that contain CFL, one relating to import duties on chinese bulbs (that could be protectionism or a way to improve the price differential of CFL) and one about traffic lights. Neither have much traction.
Looking wider, there appear to be a couple of dozen petitions suggesting VAT be reduced on energy saving bulbs (known on the site as the “no VAT on green” petition), or banning the use of “non-energy efficient lightbulbs) or, similarly, banning the sale of fitments that can’t be used with low-energy bulbs (that’s that lampshade point again) and so on.
So very fragmented. The guys at MySociety have a tough job stripping out dupes by the looks of it – there are just too many long-winded titles (I know, like this post) to work through.
Doubtless people don’t search to see what’s there before they add their own and so nothing is taking hold. There must be strong media management lessons learned from the Road Pricing petition – and I’d bet that the 58 million odd people that didn’t vote for that one have a view that energy efficiency is a good thing, especially if it’s a no cost option to them. After all, if a bulb is a bulb and there’s one that cuts your downstream bills and one that doesn’t, it should be an easy cost. You can see the sign at Tesco: “Buy this bulk and by the time it breaks it will have cost you about £24 in electricity whereas this other one will have cost you £6.” One might cost 50p to start with and the other might cost £2.50 but I think most people will get it.
So maybe it’s not about the VAT. It’s maybe about Tesco, Sainsbury and the others following Walmart and making it happen. First they change every light in their own stores as bulbs fail and then they promote CFLs using the maths above (ok, so a better version). Then the design folks swing in with a better range, enhanced colours and so on. And then government sweeps in to mop up the outliers – maybe an incentive on new builds? Sounds easy, so I’ve plainly missed something.