Imagine a conservative Australian government being widely applauded for introducing new product regulation that reduces consumption and increases prices of the regulated items.
That’s what happened in 2007 when the then environment minister Malcolm Turnbull regulated light bulbs. This resulted in making the common worst-performing light bulbs illegal by setting a mandatory minimum energy performance threshold. For normal light bulbs, this new standard took effect in November 2009 with little fanfare or fuss. As a result of this regulation, householders save much more in avoided electricity consumption than they spend on more expensive light bulbs.
Contrary to popular belief, this regulation did not ban incandescent light bulbs. Halogen bulbs are incandescent – just a slightly more efficient version. Turnbull’s regulation just set the bar a little bit above the worst peforming at the time. So the current crop of just-legal light bulbs are still incandescent, cheap and poor performing. And there’s a curious and perverse side effect. Today the new worst-performing light bulbs are often marketed as being energy-saving by comparing them to the now illegal light bulbs.
These worst-legal-performance bulbs consume about 70W where the old (now illegal) bulbs consumed about 100W for the same performance. Thirty per cent sounds a worthwhile improvement till you realise that the compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs, now readily available, provide the same light output for less than 20W – or at least an 80% reduction from our (obsolete) baseline.
Perhaps it’s now time for the next light-bulb moment. The current standard for 1300 lumen general light bulbs (ie the old 100W bulbs) is currently a minimum of 16 lumens per watt. Good commonly available lights achieve better than 70 lumens per watt, and very high performance LEDs are on the way that give 200 lumens per watt. So the current standard sets the bar way too low. And the current marketing of the worst-performing lights as energy-efficient needs to be shown for the silly greenwash that it is.
It’s nearly five years since the old incandescents were taken off the shelves. But the job of regulating lighting energy efficiency is only half done. The government needs to finish what they started and raise the bar to properly outlaw low-performance lights. The only people with anything to gain by the status quo are the big electricity generators who don’t know what to do with their spare capacity and don’t want to see demand fall any further. Setting the bar higher for light bulb efficiency will help people further reduce their energy costs.
Richard Keech is sustainable buildings researcher with Beyond Zero Emissions