November 2011

Lights Out – Incandescent light bulbs to be replaced nation-wide

The Bolivian government has committed to discontinuing the use of incandescent light globes by 2014 in a decision that promises to benefit both economy and environment. The market is wide open and new technologies are vying for acceptance – Aidan Jones reports as things are getting hectic.

By: Aidan Jones
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Adelaide - Australia


Photo: Aidan Jones

Since Thomas Edison produced the first commercial light bulb late in the 19th century, homes and businesses the world over have been saved from eternal darkness by incandescent globes; but times are changing. The drastic decrease in price and increase in availability of superior alternatives has set the scene for a maelstrom of technological transition. The heavens will move, the Earth will shake, fire will rain down from the sky and your favourite restaurant will run out of chicken. Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) will clash in the final battle for illumination domination – pretty dramatic huh?

During 2008-09 the Bolivian government delivered thousands of free, energy-efficient CFLs to households across the country; this was the first phase of the coming transitional initiative and ultimately saved 90 megawatts of electricity nationwide. At the time, those 90 megawatts constituted 10% of Bolivia’s annual power usage, but even with this impressive result there is still more to be done. What is better than 10%? Fifty percent of course; and coincidentally, that is the proportion of the national power bill the Bolivian government predicts will be saved by the 10 million CFLs that 20,000 soldiers of the national army will be distributing to Bolivian homes in the coming months. (www.cambio.bo)

Finally, the National Congress cemented its eventual aim on the 14th of September, when a bill was introduced that will make all incandescent light bulbs illegal from the 1st of January 2014. This move is in line with similar action from foreign governments such as the EU, Argentina and Australia and will likely have positive repercussions for both the economy and the environment. With the government investing such a large pool of resources in purchasing and distributing CFLs, it could be considered prudent to weigh up their advantages and disadvantages against the aging incandescent globes.


Compact Fluorescente Bulb
Photo: Ximena Noya


As far as lighting goes there really hasn’t been much of a change in demand since, well ever – people need light and that´s about as far as it goes. So where innovation is concerned, the driving force isn’t coming from a change in consumer demand, but rather from the economy. It has not gone unnoticed that incandescent lights are wastefully inefficient; in fact about 95% of the energy used to power your household light globe is wasted producing heat. (www. greenbulbs.net) This means that only 5% of the energy you use powering your incandescent lights actually goes to ‘light’ – as if illuminating darkened rooms was just a bonus feature of your tiny, bulb shaped ceiling heater.

The most likely type of light bulb to replace the incandescent (at least in the short term) is the CFL. This is because they produce a fraction of the heat and – therefore using less energy to produce equally bright light – they last, on average, around three times longer. Two of the Bolivian senators supporting the new bill, David Sanchez and Eduardo Maldonado, have claimed that CFLs are up to 8 times more energy efficient than their predecessors. (www.jornadanet.com) More conservative estimates put the figure closer to 3 times greater but, hyperbole or no hyperbole, Sanchez and Maldonado’s point stands – efficient globes mean efficient use of power and savings that will be passed on to their constituents... well that’s the idea anyway. (www.energystar.gov).

The sharp downside, which may yet prove a fatal sticking point in the public’s adoption of CFLs as a new lighting standard, is that they are made with small amounts of the poisonous chemical, mercury. We are only talking about a very small amount here – 3-5mg per bulb, which is about one hundredth the amount found in old thermometers – but any amount is enough to spark skepticism. Accidental breakage of the CFLs can cause mercury vapour to be released into the air and, left unattended, animals, children and, to a lesser extent, adults can be at risk of health complications as a result of inhalation. In the event of CFL breakage in the home, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that any children and animals should be quickly ushered away from the broken globe and any windows opened so that the area is well ventilated. Then as much of the debris as possible should be picked up with stiff cardboard and placed in a sealed container for recycling. Vacuuming should be avoided as this can further disperse the mercury vapour and the room should be left open to ventilation for as long as possible. If no recycling centres are available locally, wrap the rubbish in cardboard or newspaper, then in a plastic bag to reduce the risk of mercury contaminating landfill sites. (www.epa.gov) The other concern relating to the mercury is environmental – if CFLs are not disposed of responsibly they can end up in landfills where the mercury will inevitably leak out and contaminate surrounding environments such as soils and waterways. When a CFL passes its useful life it should be removed and recycled at the nearest recycling centre or, if there are no recycling centres nearby, the globe should be sealed in a plastic bag to reduce landfill mercury contamination. (www.epa.gov) Even with the superior efficiency and lifespan of CFLs, the public are yet to be convinced that they are safe enough to serve as an adequate replacement for incandescent; the politicians trying to convince them face an uphill battle.

Enter LEDs; the up-and-comers of the lighting industry – I know it´s pretty lame to describe anything to do with light bulbs with a phrase as involved as “up-and-comer” but hear me out. LED´s, whilst still fairly expensive when compared to CFLs and incandescents, have been decreasing in price and availability over the past 12 months and are set to continue doing so. They have a lifespan starting at around 25,000 hours (twenty. Five. THOUSAND!) and have been shown to maintain almost full brightness over all 25,000 of those hours, unlike CFLs which dim significantly over their lifespan. (www.lightingprize.com) They can also replace 60 watt incandescent bulbs and 20 watt CFLs in brightness whilst only using a meagre 10 watts. These figures are only the beginning too, the first commercially available LEDs started appearing online only this year and the best is yet to come – now you can see why my enthusiasm was justified, if Light-Emitting Diode research doesn´t excite you then I don´t know what will.

The current frontrunner in the LED market is the Philips Luxeon Rebel; these globes currently sell for approx 17.-Bs. online and, although they are not available in stores as yet, as other companies join the market the prices are sure to drop. More important than price for Bolivian families however, is the reassuring fact that LEDs are produced without the use of mercury or other dangerous toxins and are therefore much safer than CFLs to recycle and are not a health hazard if broken.

The Bolivian government´s ongoing push to supplant incandescent lights with newer, more efficient technology across the country is a positive move. The increased efficiency means a cut in power usage and savings for the economy, whilst killing two birds with one stone and helping the environment as well – this rare political convenience must have policy makers jumping at the chance to appear both conscientious and fiscally responsible. Whatever the political motives, as incandescent globes make their way into the history books and LEDs become accessible enough to replace them, CFLs will take the transitional space in between – don´t shed a tear for Edison; 120 years is a pretty good run.

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