Peak light bulbs

Kaibara87

Flickr: Kaibara87

Today marks another step towards the phasing out of conventional light bulbs in the European Union. From now on, traditional clear bulbs of 100W and all traditional frosted bulbs cannot be manufactured or imported into the EU.

In the UK at least there has been somewhat predictable outrage at this infringement on the basic human right to use inefficient lighting devices. The Daily Telegraph notes that it has been “inundated” with letters of complaint. Even the Guardian’s Comment is Free has run a contrarian piece from a hoarder of the endangered lights:

Last Wednesday, in an act of unprecedented extravagance, I visited a hardware shop where I furtively spent the entire contents of my wallet – about 30 quid – on incandescent lightbulbs. The shopkeeper had a special offer (three for a pound), so I came home with an awful lot of booty. Naughty, yes. Satisfying? No. Lately, I find that incandescent bulbs are like pork scratchings, or really good cherries, by which I mean that too many is never enough.

We also received a bizarre press release today about an enterprising business operator stockpiling the bulbs until 2012, and predicting that they would fetch £40 – £60 by then.

Presumably in anticipation of this kind of response, the European Commission has published a very lengthy Q&A about the phase-out.

First, they point out that lighting can account for up to a fifth of household energy consumption, and that the most efficient bulbs can use four or five times less power than the least efficient.

One of the questions deals with the proportionality of the measures: “why not voluntary approach or other measures (taxation, ETS)”. To which they respond:

Introducing minimum efficiency requirements for a product group such as light bulbs (rather than relying on a voluntary approach) is not disproportionate in this case. The market has clearly failed to move towards the alternatives to conventional incandescent bulbs, even though they cost much less to the consumers over their entire life cycle. Since 1998, household lamps have to indicate their energy efficiency on the packaging, thanks to implementing measure 98/11/EC of the Energy Labelling Directive (92/75/EEC). In spite of the clear indications provided on the packaging and campaigns in many Member States, consumers have failed to direct their choices to the more efficient lamps offering equivalent service, and have been largely sticking to conventional incandescent bulbs. This is due to the fact that the purchase price difference between conventional incandescent bulbs and more efficient alternatives constitutes a psychological barrier, even if the higher initial investment pays off within a year and brings substantial (but much less visible) savings over the life cycle. Another deterring factor has been the sometimes poor quality of the so-called economic lamps placed on the market without being subject to quality requirements. This market failure can only be tackled with mandatory requirements on the efficiency level and quality of all household lamps placed on the market in the EU.

They’re right of course. The EC estimates that the average household could save as much as €50 a year, and the UK’s Energy Saving Trust puts it at £590 over eight – 10 years, according to the Telegraph. But as numerous studies into energy efficiency (McKinsey’s is a good recent example), the carrot alone is not always enough to induce energy-efficient behaviour; sometimes the stick of strict regulation is also required.

Related links:

The dark side (New Yorker, 2007)

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