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‘Heated’ debate over incandescent bulbs

January 28, 2011


The phase-out of incandescent light bulbs in Canada has certainly generated some heated discussion over the past month, undoubtedly the result of the sudden disappearance of incandescent bulbs from store shelves across the country.

Under a purely free enterprise system, of course, the marketplace would decide whether incandescent lights or energy-efficient CFLs would triumph.  Consumers would decide.

However, in the interest of energy conservation, governments around the world are taking steps to phase out incandescent bulbs via government decree and intervening in the workings of the free market to effect a change considered to be in the public interest. 

The expectation here is that the innovative power of the market, sufficiently motivated, will respond with energy-efficient light sources that can match the characteristics and quality of the light emitted by incandescent bulbs, and do so at a competitive cost (something which would not likely occur without the removal of incandescent bulbs from the marketplace).

Energy-efficient CFLs have definitely come a long way in recent years.  But have they reached the point where the light they produce is equal to that of incandescent bulbs?  The jury seems to still be out on that point given the public’s reaction to the disappearance of incandescent bulbs from store shelves.

And although heat-free, energy-efficient LED lights have successfully taken over the Christmas light market in recent years, are LED lights ready yet to replace CFLs as the light bulb of choice among B.C. consumers?

Keep in mid that incandescent light has been with us for many years.  It’s basically “fire” encased in a glass bulb.  And fire has been with our species from the beginning of time.  That’s probably why the light produced by incandescent bulbs is so pleasing and comforting to our eyes and our souls: It’s an “organic” light source as opposed to the synthetic light produced by CFLs.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that incandescent light bulbs are  inefficient in their use of energy.  Nor can we get around the fact that most of the energy that flows into these bulbs ends up being emitted as heat as opposed to light.

And that’s where the whole question comes around to energy and energy production.

Because of the long lead time, the massive capital costs and the risk involved in building new electricity generating infrastructure, the first line of attack in meeting growing electricity demand is to reduce consumption through energy efficiency and conservation measures.  And there’s no question that this is good public policy, especially in cases where demand side measures (DSM) prove more cost-effective than adding new supply.

However, when new uses for electricity are being found every day, and our provincial population continues to increase every year, it’s abundantly clear that energy efficiency and conservation have their limits and can only take us so far in meeting our electricity needs.  Making investments in new energy supplies and tapping into new energy sources is also essential.

As it stands, BC Hydro has already had to import considerable amounts of electricity to meet existing demand here in B.C. for the better part of the past decade, something we’ve written about in the Livewire blog and elsewhere on numerous occasions. 

And as Guy Dauncey from the BC Sustainable Energy Association correctly pointed out in his OPED in Wednesday’s Vancouver Sun, most of the electricity BC Hydro is importing to meet existing demand is coming from dirty coal-fired power plants in Alberta.

Given the wealth of clean renewable energy resources we have right here in B.C. that we could be developing, we shouldn’t need to import coal-fired electricity from Alberta or anywhere else (other than through the normal energy trading B.C. participates in to help balance the western North American electrical grid).  If any province in Canada should be electricity self-sufficient it’s B.C.

And as we discussed at length in our BCCGE Triple Legacy report, not only does B.C. have the potential to be electricity self-sufficient and 100 percent clean, we also have the potential to be a major clean energy exporter to other jurisdictions in Western North America.    

As for the heated debate surrounding the elimination of incandescent light bulbs; we applaud Guy Dauncey for stepping up and addressing the unhelpful myths and misinformation that have crept into the discussion.  Myths and misinformation have no place in the honest, thoughtful discussion of any matter.   Just take a look at the toxic load of myths and misinformation thrown at independent green energy projects over the past several years.  

Moving forward, it will certainly be interesting to see where light bulb technology is at a year from now.  Hopefully, the market forces of innovation and competition will have resulted in light bulbs that can produce light equal to or superior to the incandescent light we’ve all come to know and love.    

One thing is for sure though: by embracing the innovative power of the private sector, and the expertise and entrepreneurship it can bring to bear on the question of energy-efficient light sources, the goal of developing high quality light sources and bringing them to the marketplace in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible will ultimately be achieved.  Of that we are certain.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Robyn Hill permalink
    May 22, 2011 3:11 pm

    About a year and a half ago every night when I got home from work, for about a couple of weeks, and sat at my desk within a short time I would develop an intense headache and nausea. I couldn’t figure out why until I looked at the light above my head and asked my husband what kind of a strange light bulb that was. He said he had just changed the bulb a short while ago and replaced it with that new kind. I had him change it back to the old kind of light bulb right then and there as that was the only difference in my nightly routine since I was getting sick every night. Sure enough every night after, the symtoms stopped. Then I find out they are made with poisonous substances in them like mercury. No one can tell me these aren’t bad for peoples health because I know better.

  2. Brian M permalink
    July 27, 2011 9:22 pm

    CFL’s flicker, which especially if combined with a computer screen can lead to headaches in some people, it is usually worse when combined with a CRT style computer monitor (tube) if the refresh rate on the CRT is under about 75 or 85 Hz. Some LCDs can adjust the refresh, although the CFL light can still “clash” with the LCD backlight causing this problem for other people. (even if the LCD uses LED backlights which will operate at a specific frequency as well) I’ve worked with customers who either had to buy high end CRTs that could operate at over 100 Hz, or could only use a computer for an hour before developing a headache, some of these people found they could use an LCD without getting an headache, some couldn’t. No matter what lighting they had.

    The mercury is completely contained (as a minuscule amount of vapour inside the tube) if it did leak out, the light would not function.

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