CFLs and LEDs Light the Way to Energy Efficiency

The Earth Policy Institute recommends switching from incandescent lighting to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as a simple way to cut carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, and save money.
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Graph of carbon dioxide emissions from lighting and the global light-duty vehicle fleet.

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The Earth Policy Institute reports that replacing incandescent lighting with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions and increase efficiency. This is the first step in the Earth Policy Institute’s climate stabilization plan to steadily increase the efficiency of world energy use. Other components of the plan can be found in the book World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown.

Our inefficient, carbon-based energy economy threatens to irreversibly disrupt the Earth’s climate. Averting dangerous climate change and the resultant crop-shrinking heat waves, more-destructive storms, accelerated sea level rise, and waves of climate refugees means cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020.

The first key component of the Earth Policy Institute’s climate stabilization plan is to systematically raise the efficiency of the world energy economy. One of the quickest ways to increase efficiency, cut carbon emissions, and save money is simply to change light bulbs.

Some 19 percent of world electricity demand goes to lighting. The carbon emissions generated by this sector equal roughly 70 percent of those produced by the global automobile fleet.

Of the 3,400 terawatt-hours of electricity consumed annually by the world’s light fixtures, more than 40 percent is used by commercial buildings, including offices, retail businesses, schools, and hospitals. Close to one third is used in the home; 18 percent in industrial buildings; and the remaining 8 percent in outdoor applications, such as lights at traffic stops and in parking lots.

Replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs with highly efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) can reduce the electricity used for lighting by three fourths or more. And since they last up to 10 times as long, each typical CFL will cut electricity bills by roughly $40 over its lifetime.

The world has reached a tipping point in shifting to CFLs as many countries phase out incandescents. Since 2006 some 40 countries, including Australia, Cuba, Japan, the United States, and the entire European Union, have phased out incandescents or have pledged to do so.

But even before the transition to CFLs is complete, the shift to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is under way. Now the world’s most advanced lighting technology, LEDs use even less energy than CFLs and can last for 20 years or more.

LEDs are quickly taking over several niche markets, such as traffic lights. In the United States, almost 70 percent of traffic lights have been converted to LEDs, while the figure is still less than 20 percent in Europe. New York City has changed all its traffic lights to LEDs, cutting the annual bill for power and maintenance by $6 million. For the far more numerous street lights, the potential savings are even greater. As prices continue to drop, LEDs are expected to take more than 50 percent of the overall North American and European lighting markets by 2015 and 80 percent by 2020.

Energy can also be saved by using motion sensors that turn lights off in unoccupied spaces. Automatic dimmers can reduce the intensity of interior lighting when sunlight is bright. LEDs combined with these “smart” lighting technologies can cut electricity bills by 90 percent compared with incandescents.

All told, shifting to CFLs in homes, to the most advanced linear fluorescents in office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, and to LEDs for traffic lights would cut the electricity now used for lighting by 65 percent, while dropping lighting’s share of total world electricity use from all sectors from 19 to 7 percent. This would save enough electricity to close 705 of the world’s 2,800 coal-fired plants. If the world turns heavily to LEDs for lighting by 2020, as now seems likely, the savings would be even greater. Combining this revolution in lighting efficiency with similar energy-saving efforts in other major economic sectors, it is possible to offset all projected growth in energy use between now and 2020.

 Reprinted from EERE Network News, a free newsletter from the U.S. Department of Energy.

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jon cowles
8/18/2011 9:24:18 AM
wait wait wait wait......just hold on a minute. i change to them fancy new flourescent bulbs years ago....but way up here in the upper penninsula some of us need those old round heat generating bulbs to keep our small pump shed or room warm so our water doesnt freeze. what are we going to do if they get rid of them? so far ive been buying and storing a couple doz. of them. men in my family die around 75-80 and i hope ive bought enough. how about some of my neighbors?

8/14/2011 7:42:04 PM
I don’t change a light bulb in my house unless it is to an LED. Even though they are more efficient the deal for me is the convenience because they last 20 years. Even if they are a wash from a cost perspective, burnt out light bulbs is just one less thing I need to think about in my hectic schedule. Plus LED’s don’t get super hot so it is probably less of a fire hazard.

8/2/2011 11:04:47 AM
As an electrician as well as someone who cares abut the planet, I have several problems with CFL's. Of course there is the mercury and all of the other things mentioned above, but additionally, and no one ever seems to mention this when you are buying CFL bulbs, but if you have dimming switches in your home, you must buy dimmable CFLs or replace the dimmers with a standard switch. If you do not, the resulting heat can cause the dimmer or the bulb to fail, and become a potential fire hazard. I have been on numerous service calls in the last 2 years due to this factor. Our utility company sent a case of Chinese made CFLs out to everyone in the district, and my phone hasn't stopped ringing since! (by the way, if anyone wants mine, they are in the garage, unopened). The issue with LED lamps is of course, expense. They are extremely cost prohibitive, even if they do last 20 yrs. I have presented the concept to many customers when wiring new homes or remodels, and have not had one taker when they see the quotation... CFL's are a farce and a cash cow for someone who owns a lot of stock in a Chinese light bulb factory. (Thanks Al Gore). MOST of the CFLs are made there. If you insist on using the bloody things, at least try to buy American Made!!!

JP Pilibin
7/25/2011 4:13:59 PM
Here in Ireland , we have been using both of these energy bulbs for the last 10 years and there is substantial savings savings when the whole house is converted including all out-buildings and attics or lofts. There are problems though when it comes to acquiring the actual bulbs - buy them from a reputable manafacturer and not a company that re-labels chinese bulbs as American or European # Real Philips bulbs will stand the test of time but counterfeits fail after a year or so. Disposal is simple , here there are re-cycled by our local council and all the constituant parts re used. Issues with radiation or associated health problems are miniscule in comparision to radiation levels emitted by mobile/cell phones - My thoughts -S

7/24/2011 10:43:58 PM
I am disappointed by the quality of light from the CFL's and I now read that the on/off imperceptible strobeing effect is upsetting to the hormones. They also put out a lot of EMF. Still they have cut my electric bill. I use a incandesent on my night table and anyplace a bulb could get broken. I will transitions to LED's when I can get them for $10 each. Most of the electricity for lighting is being used by the empty office buildings at night. Their light are on to balance/use the excess electricity the coal fired powerplants are making. We need to covert them to natural gas or have a zillion electric cars being charged at night so we dont need to leave the lights on in the office buildings.

Steve C
7/24/2011 1:59:21 PM
Not one mention of mercury in this entire article. Sure, let's save the poisoning ourselves. A eugenicist's dream. And at the point of a gun no option. That's freedom. Freedumb. Who writes these idiotic articles?

7/24/2011 9:24:00 AM
The 'research' is a ploy. I will say, however, that in summer I prefer CFLs because they produce a softer light and do not create the additional heat as incandescent bulbs do, reducing the need for cooling. I have had no problems w/'yellow' light, you have to look carefully at the packaging to get the right bulb. I have recently discovered LEDs and I like those because the light is again softer and the bulbs will last longer than incandescents. I particularly like the LED 'spot' lights. I have one in each room for use during power outages - put them in front of a mirror and you can light up the room.

merilyn silva
7/23/2011 9:29:19 PM
How can you suggest the use of these CFL bulbs. They are hazardous to our health and children. they give off carcinogenic vapors and if broken mercury at a level that can hurt children and is nearly impossible to clean up.. KEEP THEM OUT OF OUR HOMES.

t brandt
7/23/2011 5:33:37 PM
a) The initial graph in the article is rather meaningless. It merely reflects the fact that most people in the world use electric lights, but few have autos.(b) Only about 10% of Americans' electric bill goes towards lighting. Saving 10% of our energy by switching to CFLs means coal will last 220 yrs instead of 200 yrs. BFD, considering we're allowing the govt to take away our more of our personal freedom. (c) Such a switch wouldn't save us 10% of energy anyways: CFL light is inferior, so we wind up using more bulbs, each with a higher energy expense of production as pointed out by other commentors. (d) Is a just a coicidence that J. Imelt,CEO of GE is also a very influential advisor of Pres. Obama? The govt mandate allowed GE to close its American bulb manufacturing plants and switch production to China. Thanks Jeff & Barry. Another job well done in the name of "protecting us from ourselves."

Jan Steinman
7/22/2011 9:06:49 PM
CFBs and LEDs have a problem: they have a "long tail" of a lot of hidden energy and environmental costs. They require billion-dollar semiconductor wafer fabrication plants, and they fund civil war in the Congo and other places where essential ingredients like "coltan" are found. On the other hand, reflector halogen incandescent bulbs put light where you need it, and are actually just as efficient in lighting a small area as a CFB is, as the latter cannot be easily focused to a small area. Such bulbs can also be built by small manufacturers in a local economy -- unlike CFBs and LEDs. Don't get me wrong, I use CFBs and LEDs as well. But they are not a panacea. The best solution is to not worry about which bulb you're using, but to make sure you make good use of the light that you have, using task lighting instead of area lighting and turning them off when you're done. The "Jeavons Paradox" notes that as things get more efficient, we tend to use more of them. Regardless of the bulb, there's nothing worse than one that's using electricity when it doesn't need to be on.

Linda Corbin
7/22/2011 8:19:01 PM
I've used CFL's and they are ALL horrible!! I get a glaring yellow light from them, nothing like a florescent like you usually see. I had one light bulb I got w/ a lamp from First Street as a gift, the bulb is a 'tensor' 18WFSU-CL and it says vision max on it along w/ other fine had GOOD light, you think I can find another one? NOPE.......First Street says they never heard of them, I haven't hit the Big Box stores yet but I personally hate the CFL's. I read ALOT and the light they put out sucks, at least the brands I''ve bought (which is all the top ones).

Abbey Bend
7/22/2011 8:50:09 AM
Was this article written by Obama's Energy Czar or what? While increases in efficiency are good for all of us, increases in mercury in the environment is questionable at best. CO2 emissions are not a problem, we live at historically low levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, actually unusually low levels. Go to here for some interesting facts about CO2 and the Earth’s real climate history, not the made up stuff being sold as science by people looking to make a killing from selling carbon tax credits.

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