Let’s End the Useless Debate about Light Bulbs

Aug 23, 2011 by

On August 3 the Department of Energy announced that Philips Lighting North America has won the 60-watt replacement bulb category in the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize (“L Prize”) competition. The intent of the competition is to challenge the lighting industry to develop high-performance replacements for conventional light bulbs that will enable American consumers and businesses to save energy and money.

Philips actually submitted their prize-winning LED light bulb back in 2009. It took 18 months of intensive field, lab, and product testing to make sure the Phillips bulb met the DOE’s rigorous requirements to win the competition. (Unlike compact fluorescent light bulbs, which are widely available as energy-saving alternatives to old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, LED lights contain no toxic mercury.) But here’s the real news: If every 60-watt incandescent bulb in the U.S. was replaced with the 10-watt L Prize winner, our nation would save about 35 terawatt-hours of electricity or $3.9 billion in one year. We’d also avoid dumping 20 million metric tons of carbon emissions (from electric power plants) into the atmosphere. Is there anyone out there who thinks this is a bad idea?

For me, a journalist who began writing about energy efficiency over 30 years ago (when the first Arab Oil Embargo triggered a wide range of energy-saving initiatives), the current debate about whether or not to ban incandescent light bulbs made me feel frustrated and angry. Arguing about whether or not we need a law to stop wasting energy is missing the point. Or to be more accurate, a couple of points:

This time, the Green Revolution isn’t going away and we need to lead it.

In the 1980s and beyond, the price of oil stabilized at lower levels and Americans promptly reversed course. Technological developments related to solar energy, super insulated house construction and high-mileage autos slowed to a snail’s pace and even reversed in the case of the auto industry, as Detroit returned to manufacturing gas-guzzlers.

This time the energy crisis isn’t going away. But it’s not just energy that’s becoming more and more precious as a global commodity. Environmental quality and security are becoming scarcer too –clean air, potable water, and some measure of protection from extreme weather. The Green Revolution is our ticket to secure these resources, and in so doing, revive our economy and restore our position as a leading economic engine.

The great thing about the Green Revolution is how broad and deep it is, demanding innovation at local and national levels, and in low-tech and high-tech sectors. We can’t afford to get bogged down arguing about light bulbs when we need the equivalent of “L prize” winners is so many different categories, from smokestack scrubbers and cleaner fracking technology to more affordable ground-source heat pumps and updated vo-tech programs that train the next generation of solar system installers.

Saving energy is just as important as generating it.

In the U.S. and globally, the growth rate of renewable energy industries is finally on par with the potential of these clean, green and plentiful resources. Giant wind turbines, photovoltaic panel arrays, and huge concentrating solar systems are eye candy for green living advocates. But our best opportunity to save energy and grow green jobs lies in a different sector entirely. We’ve got a stockpile of 30 million homes that use twice as much electricity, natural gas, propane and fuel oil as they should. Basic and affordable energy upgrades like air sealing, insulation, and water heater replacement are needed to reduce the incredible amount of energy we’re wasting in our homes. “Reduce before you produce” is my standard response when someone asks me about installing solar panels on the roof of their house. This brings us back to light bulbs. No, we probably don’t need a light bulb law that forces people to cut their electric bills. But we do need to get on the ball about driving innovation in all possible areas of green technology. This is where the new jobs are. This is where our investments in time, money and talent need to go. And this is what our representatives in Congress need to be concentrating on.

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  1. Clayton

    I agree that we need more efficient lighting, but it needs to work. I made the mistake of putting Compact Flourescent lights in the bathroom; and had to replace them all in less than a year. The constant on-off wore 9 of them out quickly. Incandescents last much longer (and are what I have gone back to in the bathroom). LEDs promise better, but my experience so far is not good with under cabinet lighting, etc. Quality is vital for new light bulbs to succeed. Does anyone rate long term quality on these?

    I am not a ludite, I have CFLs in outdoor lights that are on all the time, and in the kitchen and living room where they get turned on for long times. I am experimenting with LEDs in computer room and bedrooms…so far so good. Where I live (Texas) reducing heat is important, as AC is the major load for 6+ months of the year. (A/C turned on in March this year….)

    What is really needed is a way to use the waste heat from the AC to heat the water. The electric water heater is an energy hog (no gas where I live). No basements either, so it has to fit in a closet, thus self contained heat pump water heaters don’t work. Oh, and a fixed income makes major capital investments very difficult, so trying to do incremental improvements.

    Any suggestions on quality LED lights? At a reasonable price (i.e. there is a payback at some time….)

  2. Delmy Sylver

    Incandescent bulbs are manufactured in a wide range of sizes, light output, and voltage ratings, from 1.5 volts to about 300 volts. They require no external regulating equipment, have low manufacturing costs, and work equally well on either alternating current or direct current. As a result, the incandescent lamp is widely used in household and commercial lighting, for portable lighting such as table lamps, car headlamps, and flashlights, and for decorative and advertising lighting..”^*

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