It’s time for Australia’s next light-bulb moment

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It’s nearly five years since the old incandescent lights were taken off the shelves. But the job of regulating lighting energy efficiency is only half done.

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Meaningless energy-efficiency claims seen here on the worst-performing bulbs that can be legally sold.

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

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19 Comments
  1. Beat Odermatt 5 years ago

    Thank you writing about this issue. I had a look at our energy consumption and decided to replace all our light bulbs with LED bulbs. I got a shock when I found out that some stores are selling LED bulbs for up to $40.00 each. I bought a few on Ebay and paid $2.50 for a 5 w and about $5.00 for a 9 w bulb.
    I had a look at the potential payback time and found out that it may be as short as 6 month or less in areas of high use. With an expected product life of over 25 years, I think buying affordable LED bulbs is a good investment with a win-win outcome for the budget and environment.

    • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

      I too have noticed the huge gap between the online price of LED lights and what the supermarkets and Bunnings charge. (Bunnings appears to gouge just a little less.) Australians are being gouged on LED light prices simply because Australians pay so much more for electricity than people in most other countries. This is resulting in emissions being higher than what they would be otherwise and, stochastically at least, killing people. We should demand supermarkets charge prices competitive with what’s available online to do their bit for the environment and reduce Australia’s number of stochastic slayings.

      • Beat Odermatt 5 years ago

        Yes, it seems that everyone is charging as much as they can and not a cent less or more. This applies to all goods and services and we as customers should make decisions which are right for us, our budget and the environment.
        If every single light bulb in the world is replaced with an LED, then we are on the right path towards a low carbon economy.

    • Simon Moss 5 years ago

      Buyers of cheap LEDs beware. The industry is rife with false claims and shonky product. If you buy a cheap E-bay/Chinese LED the brightness, colour temperature, colour rendering and lifespan are almost never going to match the claimed specifications. The cheap circuitry is likely to fail long before the LED chip gives out and some are electrically unsafe as well. There are some well priced “old fashioned light bulb” equivalents now like the well known brand at Bunnings for $16.99 but the halogen-in-the-ceiling replacement market is still problematic. After a lot of Whirlpool forum reading, those in the know are concluding that the direct drop-in bulb replacements are always going to be too compromised and are recommending a “kit” (bulb connects to separate LED driver connects to three pin plug). LEDs have a ‘bright’ future but do your research. This article is spot on. Time to raise the bar another level.

      • Beat Odermatt 5 years ago

        Yes, I hear the warning about cheap imported goods. Mind you, when the price is 90% less than in a store nearby, I can take the risk and try them out. Maybe some of the LED bulbs sold in nearby stores are also made in China.

      • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

        While I will try to avoid rubbish I am more than willing to take my chances with low cost LED lights. We do have standards here (Phillips had to pay significantly for selling dodgy CFLs a while back) and all up I pay an average of 48 cents a kilowatt-hour for grid electricity, so even if the occasional LED light turns out to be shonky I can more than afford to replace it with savings from my electricity bill.

  2. Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

    Even a simple change such as no longer being allowed to market halogen bulbs as energy efficient (because they aren’t these days) would help. Rather than ban any particular bulb, I’d prefer low efficiency ones to be taxed bcause a lot of people just look at the cost of the light when they’re in a store and don’t consider the running cost and it will stop a few people having a fit because they can’t buy the light bulb they fought in the war for.

  3. Adam Lucas 5 years ago

    Nice article, Richard. Ronald’s argument below about putting a high tax on inefficient light bulbs is a good one, too.

  4. JohnRD 5 years ago

    Do your sums Ronald. The savings you make per bulb for a 50 w saving works out at a bit above one cent/hr. It is not the sort of thing where doing what you suggest ids going to have much effect on behaviour even though householder savings per tonne [email protected] abatement are high.
    It is a textbook case for a further tightening of regulations.

    • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

      Riiiiighhhhht. Because making inefficient lights more expensive than efficient lights wouldn’t encourage people to purchase the efficient ones. I think you may have misread my comment.

      • JohnRD 5 years ago

        What we had was a simple world beating regulation that got rid of low efficiency light bulbs. A hell of a lot smarter than some complex subsidy or/and tax that would have made the more efficient bulbs a bit cheaper. Manipulating price should be seen as the last resort, not the only aceptable answer.

  5. dwj 5 years ago

    We need to be very careful of over regulating in this area.
    I have replaced the most frequently used MR16 lamps in my house with LEDs but the remaining lamps are used very little and the thousand dollars it would cost to replace them all is simply not justified. The planet and I would both be better off if my money was spent on a more efficient fridge or another 500 watts of solar panels or put toward an electric car.

    • Beat Odermatt 5 years ago

      You are talking about ” the thousand dollars ” it would cost. Either you have a massive home or you are paying far too much of the LED bulbs. I think I can replace every single bulb in our home for less than $200.00. I agree if I go to a local lighting shop I would be able to spend over $1000.00.

  6. Gongite 5 years ago

    Good article and discussion. I would love to see a continuing and substantive ratcheting up of standards on lightbulbs, electrical appliances and motor vehicles, as happens in countries like Japan. Unfortunately Australia is way behind in this area, just as we don’t have national air quality standards or any emissions limits on trucks. Let’s hope change is coming and soon.

  7. Smithy 5 years ago

    Chinese LED’s at 5W and 10W are about as useful as a couple of candles! Truly dimmable LED’s are not a patch on their energy wasting predecessors… There’s still a lot of work to be done.

  8. Alan Baird 5 years ago

    There are cheap LEDs and cheap LEDs. I’ve had some small 3 watters from Aldi and they were great. They have lasted well and a broken “bulb” (the white plastic light diffuser) didn’t stop the LEDs working. The low heat is impressive. An 8W LED “tube” replaced a 13W fluorescent tube most competently. In my experience all the LEDs I’ve bought have worked reliably except one which never worked well right from the get-go, and it was a very expensive one! Circuitry. Warranty fix.
    The woes of the insulation scheme were probably as much due to halogen downlight heat as anything else. A lighting shop operator once told me he found old cardboard boxes smoking (!) in the attic above the halogen down lights in his store, and this was a voluntary, unsolicited comment. A truly thick idea for lighting, but oh so popular. People also think the low voltage means low energy use. Watt do they know? Halogen lights also conduct heat from a room really well in winter, pumping air into the attic like fires in old coal mine shafts and you can’t insulate over them, except if you’re an incompetent insulation contractor. In summer they fight it out with the air conditioner, radiating heat effectively, sort of like driving with foot on accelerator and brake simultaneously. My brother’s electricity AND gas bills dropped VERY noticeably when halogen down lights were replaced by LEDs and insulation made continuous rather than “holey”. Halogen down lights: a triumph of style over substance,

  9. Alex Hromas 5 years ago

    We need to get the incandescent type lamps out of circulation not only do they increase energy consumption and carbon footprint they also have a higher risk of initiating house fires due to their high operating temperature and large current draw

  10. CaresAboutHealth 2 years ago

    Regulations for new appliances would certainly help! I was looking to replace a range hood with a new, ducted one, only to find they all come with two 40 watt incandescents. Pretty silly that they don’t come with LEDs.

  11. gh 1 year ago

    Some people get headaches, sore eyes or seizures from the high frequency flicker from LEDs and CFLs, including the 100Hz flicker present in all LEDs. Banning halogens would make life very difficult for some of us.

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