33 Light bulbs: which technology?

Posted on November 30, 2011 by

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As an aside to the current Summit in Durban with regard to the Kyoto protocol, let me comment on light bulbs.

Traditional tungsten filament light bulbs wasted a lot of energy by heating up the universe. A few years back we were told to replace them – on “ecological” grounds; now they are being banned.

A neon-tube based technology came on the market. It saved a lot of energy and  was expected to last 10-15 years all right, but it also had several drawbacks: it still costs about five to ten times the price of a regular bulb, it takes time to reach full luminosity, and (but we were not told) the bulbs contains mercury: full recycling would be essential for ecological reasons, difficult, and dangerous. No one ever told me whether the savings were worth the extra cost. I replaced the bulbs in the whole house anyway.

A new LED-based technology has just come on stream. It saves 80% of energy compared to the original tungsten bulb, it has instant luminosity, and it will last 25 years. No indication is available on recycling. The novelty price is likely to be horrific, but it may come down in time.

Let’s forget the issue of recycling. The key economic issue in my view is the longevity of either technology. With the neon-light based technology I was promised 10 years of “peace of mind” – except that three years later a new, even longer lasting technology came on stream. Switch again? Having mad the large investment in a long-lasting but comparatively inferior technology, I’ll be loath to switch,

Rationality would require me to stick to the old tungsten bulb, until the waves of technology have settled: too much technology, in particular long lasting ones, leads to wastefully sunk costs and poor allocation of resources.

The other issue is ecology. Recycling the neon-light based technology has hardly begun, even here in Switzerland: after all the first major wave of rejects will only arrive in a few years (so in accordance with factory promises). If we all switch from this bulb to the LED-based now, we’ll have a lot of mercury to dispose of. Where to go? Is the country ready for replacing neon-based with LED-based bulbs?

Lord Stern, in his report on the economics of climate change, has used a low interest rate to justify heavy up-front investment in CO2 abatement technologies. He would have patted me on the shoulder for buying neon-light based technology. His “go go go” approach does not look too bright, in retrospect, does it? Low interest rates favour large investments up front – which create sunk costs, and thus rigidities downstream from the investment decision. Imagine if a government plunging for a long-lived technology in 2007, only to be confronted with a far better one in 2012.

BTW: my local electricity board has congratulated me for being 23.4% more efficient than my neighbours. Splendid. My electricity bill was 930 CHF last year. I saved 214 CHF by comparison – a dinner for a family of four in a medium level restaurant. This is why the dedicated website of the Board only informs about quantity, not about cost savings. And even doubling the cost of electricity would not make that much of a difference in my own behavior: most of the electricity the household consumes is indirect.