Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency: Banning the Bulb

Perhaps the quickest, easiest, and most profitable way to reduce electricity use worldwide—thus cutting carbon emissions—is simply to change light bulbs. Replacing the inefficient incandescent light bulbs that are still widely used today with new compact fluorescents (CFLs) can reduce electricity use by three fourths. The energy saved by replacing a 100-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL over its lifetime is sufficient to drive a Toyota Prius hybrid car from New York to San Francisco. 6

 

Over its lifetime, each standard (13 watt) CFL will reduce electricity bills by roughly $30. And though a CFL may cost twice as much as an incandescent, it lasts 10 times as long. Since it uses less energy, it also means fewer CO2 emissions. Each one reduces energy use by the equivalent of 200 pounds of coal over its lifetime. Less coal burning means reduced air pollution, making lighting efficiency an obviously attractive option for fast-growing economies plagued with polluted air, such as China and India. 7

 

The world may be moving toward a political tipping point away from inefficient light bulbs. In February 2007 Australia announced it would phase out the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2010, replacing them with CFLs. Canada soon followed, saying it would phase out incandescents sales by 2012. 8

 

In mid-March, a U.S. coalition of environmental groups joined with Philips Lighting to launch an initiative to shift to more-efficient bulbs in all of the country’s estimated 4 billion light sockets by 2016. 9

 

By mid-2007, some 15 states either had passed or were considering legislation to restrict or ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs. The proposed legislation in New York, for example, would phase out incandescents by 2012, four years ahead of the coalition’s deadline. And with a dozen or so others restricting or proposing to restrict use in one way or another, pressure is building to pass legislation making this shift nationwide. 10

 

The European Union (EU), with 27 member countries, announced in March 2007 that it plans to cut carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020, with part of the cut coming from replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs. In the United Kingdom, the civic group Ban the Bulb has been vigorously pushing for a ban on incandescents since early 2006. Further east, the Moscow city government is urging its residents to switch to compact fluorescents. 11

 

Brazil , hit by a nationwide electricity shortage in 2000–02, responded with an ambitious program to replace incandescents with CFLs. As a result, an estimated half of its light sockets now contain these efficient bulbs. In 2007, China—working with the Global Environment Facility—announced a plan to replace all its incandescents with more efficient lighting within a decade. 12

 

Greenpeace is urging the government of India to ban incandescents in order to cut carbon emissions. Since roughly 640 million of the 650 million bulbs sold each year in this fast-growing economy are the old inefficient incandescents, the potential for cutting carbon emissions, reducing air pollution, lowering the frequency of blackouts, and saving consumers money is huge. 13

 

At the industry level, Philips, the world’s largest lighting manufacturer, is going to stop marketing incandescents in Europe by 2016. And the European Lamp Companies Federation (the bulb manufacturers’ trade association) is supporting a rise in EU lighting efficiency standards that would lead to a phaseout of incandescent bulbs. 14

 

Retailers are joining the switch too. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, announced a marketing campaign in November 2006 to boost its sales of compact fluorescents to 100 million by the end of 2007, more than doubling its annual sales of such bulbs. And Currys, Britain’s largest electrical retail chain, announced in 2007 that it would discontinue selling incandescent light bulbs. 15

 

For office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, where linear (tubular) fluorescents are widely used, the key to cutting electricity use is shifting to the most advanced models, which are even more efficient than CFLs. Since linear fluorescents are long-lasting, many of those now in use rely on an earlier, less energy-efficient technology. 16

 

An even newer lighting technology—light-emitting diodes or LEDs—uses only one fifth as much electricity as the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Already, New York City has replaced traditional bulbs with LEDs in many of its traffic lights, cutting its annual bill for maintenance and electricity by $6 million. LED costs are still high, however, discouraging widespread consumer use. 17

 

In addition to switching bulbs themselves, huge energy savings can be gained just by turning lights off when not in use. There are numerous technologies for reducing electricity used for lighting, including motion sensors that turn lights off when spaces are unoccupied, such as in washrooms, hallways, and stairwells. In cities, dimmers can be used to reduce street light intensity, and timers can turn off outside lights that illuminate monuments or other landmarks when people are asleep. Dimmers can also be used to take advantage of day lighting to reduce the intensity of interior lighting.

 

Shifting to CFLs in homes, to the most advanced linear fluorescents in office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, and to LEDs in traffic lights would cut the world share of electricity used for lighting from 19 percent to 7 percent. This would save enough electricity to avoid building 705 coal-fired power plants. By way of comparison, today there are 2,370 coal-fired plants in the world. 18

 

In a world facing new evidence almost daily of global warming and its consequences, a quick and decisive victory is needed in the battle to cut carbon emissions and stabilize climate. A rapid shift to the most energy-efficient lighting technologies would provide just such a victory—generating momentum for even greater advances in climate stabilization.

 

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