1 Comment »Posted on Wednesday 7 January 2009 at 2:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

I guess 2009 must be short on celebrity TV scandals so far, because earlier this morning the headline story on the Daily Mail’s website was Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies. It’s been pushed off by other stories now, but the switch to energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) bulbs must be big news, with not one but two editorials on the matter.

Last year I wrote about a study showing that CFL bulbs can do more harm than good, depending on where you live. Yes, they will always use less energy than a regular bulb, but the materials required to make them could increase average mercury emissions in a low-mercury country such as Norway. Countries like the US would receive a reduction in mercury emissions, however. Full details are in the previous post, so I won’t repeat them here, but although I can’t back it up with facts I imagine we’re probably closer to the US side of the scale than Norway.

The mercury question aside (a question that could be easily answered if I was able to access the paper) I’m moderately in favour of CFL bulbs, but I would much rather see commercial LED bulbs instead. More on that in a bit; let’s have a look at how the Daily Mail is reporting the national tragedy that is the loss of the incandescent bulb.

It’s good to see that hyperbole is out in full effect, with the opening statement:

Millions of Britons are finally waking up to the fact that their beloved light bulb will disappear for good after 120 years.

Yes, losing the good old bulb feels like an old friend has passed on. Often, I would stare up into my lighting fixture until my retinas burnt, such was my devotion. Soon, this happy past-time will be no longer.

Reading the article, it’s easy to see why this story is being run. Nothing to do with CFLs versus regular bulbs; it’s all an excuse for a bit of Daily Mail EU bashing:

The supplies are running out after the Government signed up to an EU decision to replace conventional 100w light bulbs with supposedly greener low energy alternatives.

The Mail’s main objections seem to be health issues, financial cost, and quality of lighting. They report that CFLs can causes skin rashes, migraines and epilepsy. Googling for a bit has revealed that much of the evidence for this is anecdotal – I can’t seem to find any scientific studies that provide an answer either way. This is a failing of both the Government and the Green movement – why haven’t these types of studies been commissioned before phasing out traditional bulbs?

The concerns on cost are a little less agreeable, however. The Mail reports an average pack of six standard bulbs to cos £1.21, or 20.17p each, whilst a single CFL is £2.19, roughly ten times as much. Again, no facts to back it up, but I have definitely seen CFLs cheaper than this, so the Mail are possibly being selective in their reporting. They do say, however, that CFLs can save £7 a year in bills per bulb, over a regular light.

Hang on a minute, doesn’t that mean that CFLs are actually cheaper? If a normal bulb costs 20.17p + £x to run (where £x is the electricity cost), then a CFL will cost £2.19 + £x-7. Doesn’t matter what £x is, a CFL will always be cheaper. Additionally, because CFLs last much longer than normal bulbs, you’ll see that £7 saving for many years.

Finally, the Mail report complaints that say both the lights are too dim, and that they don’t work with a dimmer switch. Forgive me if I’m being stupid, but why would you want to dim a too-dim light?

It’s a fuss about nothing really. Only the 100W bulbs are currently being phased our, whilst the rest of them will be hanging on until 2012. I’m hoping that by then, LED bulbs will have taken hold, and the question of CFL suitability won’t even matter. The Daily Mail fail to even report on the existence of LED bulbs, however.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are the small indicator lights you find in most consumer electronics. Not bright enough to light a room you might think, but put a bunch of them together, and you’re getting close. LED bulbs are already on the market, but at costs and strengths that make them unsuitable for wide use. These problems are expected to be overcome however, and will result in dramatic energy savings, even over CFLs.

Still, perhaps I’m just as bad as the Daily Mail in over-reporting the death of the light bulb. Glancing at my word count, I’ve written nearly 800 – quite enough for one day I think!


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