The CFLs are on, but nobody’s home

The mad green war on light bulbs won’t save much electricity - it’s about enforcing moral rectitude in the home.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Rarely has an edict from the European Union had such a quick, strong and controversial impact.

The EU has decreed that traditional, incandescent light bulbs, which have low energy efficiencies, should be phased out: 150-watt ones became extinct last year; 60-watt ones will die in 2010; and 100-watt bulbs – the bestsellers in Britain – will be consigned to Europe’s past in September this year.

Next, in an attempt to be greener earlier than its continental counterparts, Her Majesty’s government has established a thoroughly voluntary scheme for retailers to phase out 100-watt incandescents… ASAP. The effect of this indirect compulsion has been, ironically enough, to build a surge of demand among British shoppers for incandescents, because people don’t much like their newer rivals, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).

Standing here in a West London branch of Ryness, a chain of lighting retailers, you get a good idea of the pros and cons of incandescents and CFLs. You can also compare them with the technologies that America’s General Electric has decided to concentrate research on, light emitting diodes (LEDs) and their organic cousins (OLEDs). And you can do this in the knowledge that this Ryness outlet sold out of all its incandescents in just one day last week.

The Daily Mail says that ‘Britons’ are in revolt about ‘their beloved light bulbs’, and that the newer replacement bulbs are dangerous (1). By contrast, a spokeswoman for the UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decried those who have criticised CFLs for their poor quality of light output. Last summer, the reassuringly named Light Bulb Pepsi Challenge, run by the government’s Energy Saving Trust at British shopping centres, had found that ‘the vast majority of people could not tell the difference between the light provided by the different bulbs’ – or so the Defra spokewoman said (2).

Who to believe?

Talking to Gary Deller, a well-informed salesman at the Ryness shop, it’s clear that both CFLs and LEDs still have a way to go before they can match the quality of light provided by conventional bulbs. The conventional sort is inefficient, and nobody can be against better energy efficiency by itself. The newer sorts are more efficient. Right now, though, CFLs often provide a ghostly, Addams Family hue, are slow to come on, and can’t be fitted or dimmed everywhere; they aren’t lights, but darks.

For their part, LEDs take no time to come on, and, unlike CFLs, contain no mercury. However, while they’ll last an impressive quarter of a century, LEDs today cost about £13 if you buy them online – a lot of money to spend just to make the usual very modest savings in energy and money over the coming years.

The new kinds of lights will no doubt improve. But the pace of innovation in lighting has been very slow.

To bring light to the gloom, in every sense, is one of the key faculties of human beings. So to understand lighting in the twenty-first century, we have to get behind the deservedly humble light bulb.

The wrong end of the telescope

First, the whole discussion about this bulb or that bulb is like looking at a problem through the wrong end of a telescope. What’s more important than any particular kind of light is society’s ability to keep the lights on.

Right now, that ability is, in the case of Britain and many developing countries, rather in question. At the end of last year, a House of Commons committee on business and enterprise issued a dire warning. One passage is worth quoting in full:

‘Generating capacity equivalent to nearly a third of current electricity demand will be made redundant by 2020. It will need to be replaced. We believe that in the current economic climate there is a high risk that the energy companies will not be able to raise the finance necessary to build this. It is the government’s job to ensure security of supply. Just as the government has been quick to respond to the crisis in the banking sector, it must now take action to ensure investment in new capacity takes place as planned. A reasonable level of profit by the big energy suppliers will be a precondition of this investment taking place. The situation is now very serious and we believe that a simple trust in the market’s ability to deliver without any intervention will see us facing an “energy crunch” in the medium term. The social and economic consequences of such a “crunch” would be disastrous.’ (3)

In short, Britain is set to be closing quite a number of power stations, and is more nervous than ever about building new ones.

There’s no need to be alarmist about power cuts. But shortages of electricity supply in the UK are a real possibility; and what’s a lot more certain is that society needs energy more than it needs a big fuss about light bulbs.

Second, it is around electricity supply, and not around energy conservation in the home or even energy efficiency in the home, that mankind will find the best solutions to climate change – the issue that has prompted UK and EU regulators to get in a froth about light bulbs.

CO2 doesn’t come out of light bulbs. It comes out of power stations, more than anything else. State efforts to regulate what people put into and do with their homes have no rational basis. They work only to absolve the state from taking the tough, oh-so-risky decisions it should be taking about building a bigger, better and cleaner electricity supply for the twenty-first century. If you’re worried about the component of British CO2 emissions that’s initiated by lighting use in the home, the way to fix it is either to capture the CO2 emitted from coal- and gas-fired power plants, or to generate power by some serious investment in nuclear and renewable energy.

Green regulation means more intense labour

CFLs contain about four milligrams of mercury per bulb. I’ve no more wish to dramatise the danger of exposure to this than I have to exaggerate the danger of UK power cuts. Certainly it would be wrong to suggest that every consumer of CFLs will soon be as mad as a hatter (the phrase having originated in the use of mercury compounds made by hat-makers before the twentieth century). Yet as far as I can determine, carelessness with the new CFLs around the home has effects on an appreciably larger scale than carelessness with incandescents.

As it happens, most people aren’t very careless. But regulatory and voluntary schemes to bring in CFLs will ensure that the disposal of light bulbs will now become, as so often with green pipe-dreams in practice, a labour-intensive business. That’s the biggest problem with CFLs – they’re hard work.

James, the manager of the Ryness store I visited, tells me that the chain has had to pay between five and 15 pence extra on top of the basic wholesale cost of a CFL bulb to cover its polluting effects. Yet under the EU’s waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) Directive, firms such as Ryness have also, since August 2005, been given the responsibility of arranging for spent CFLs to be recycled (9). James therefore has to collect such old CFL bulbs, burnt-out incandescents and spent batteries as are returned to him by customers, and then get an employee to drive them in a van up to a recycling plant in Manchester. Broken CFLs, he adds, are classified as hazardous waste, and you need a waste management company like Biffa to dispose of them unless you know how to yourself.

So long as CFLs contain mercury, the poisoning they cause may be relatively slight, but the legally underwritten physical hassle they bring will be considerable.

Regulation has brought about a rise in CFLs. But so far that’s proved a modest innovation compared with the wider web of regulation which CFL usage is likely to bring about. How will you dispose of your new ethical light bulbs? Hardly the kind of terrifically enlightening question we want to be asking ourselves at the front end of 2009.

Already the California Energy Commission wants to regulate plasma TVs and even liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs. In the new crusade, regulation will be piled upon regulation.


Opposition to the EU initiative, when it is not framed in backward-looking Little Englander prose, makes much of the health-and-safety dangers of the new bulbs.

On one side we have green-leaning governments warning about the floods, droughts and increased malaria that industrialisation and man-made climate change are supposed already to have visited on the planet. On the other side we have the Daily Mail, which insists that low-energy fluorescent bulbs ‘can trigger skin rashes, migraines and epilepsy’ (10). In The Sunday Times, India Knight worries that CFLs may lead to eyestrain, and to people vegging out in front of the television rather than reading (11).

Both sides represent the side effects of technology as a threat to life, limb and general wellbeing. How edifying!

What’s lost in all this is that innovation should take priority – innovation in the efficiency, cost, durability, reliability, universality and lighting output from new-generation light bulbs, and also – more importantly – innovation in energy supply.

The opponents of CFLs forget that further product innovation is possible, even if it is slow. LEDs and OLEDs contain no mercury, have high-energy efficiencies, and represent the future. Myself, I’ve been captivated by OLEDs since 2004 (12), and believe that brightly-lit, wall-sized OLED TVs will make a big difference to lighting in the home. But the TVs I’ve looked forward to are still in the laboratory, not the living room.

What also, and much more worryingly, remains in the laboratory is the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology with which new coal-fired and gas-fired power stations need to be equipped. On the other hand, a proven technology like nuclear power is the subject of official support in rhetoric, and official ambivalence in practice.

To introduce new nuclear reactors to Britain would be a genuine innovation. That way, you could enjoy as many kinds of lights as you liked, and, better still, never have to think about lights again. In that sense, the answer to the Great Lights Controversy is: Three Cheers for the Chandelier!


According to Defra, the use of domestic lighting in Britain led to nine million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) being emitted in 2005. But Britain’s overall emissions of greenhouse gases (not just CO2, but other gases as well) now top 600million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e). Now Defra says that CFLs use about 25 per cent of the energy used by an incandescent lamp to produce the same light. So the maximum CO2 savings that might emerge from complete and universal CFL use in British homes can only amount to between six and seven MtCO2, or about one per cent of Britain’s overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The general figure quoted, usually in a context that suggests enormity, is five MtCO2.

In Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation (2009), Joe Kaplinsky and I use somewhat older official figures for emissions to show that switching off all domestic lighting forever would only save about 0.6 per cent, not of the UK’s emissions of greenhouse gases, but of its CO2 emissions. That’s somewhat less than the one per cent figure arrived at above. But however you compute it, conserving energy through CFLs amounts to tiddlywinks.

For greens, by contrast, to make ‘consumer’ behaviour in the home a question of moral rectitude is so urgent that any statistical idiocy may be permitted. Thus one journalist recently declared: ‘Since lighting is reckoned to account for 10-15 per cent of UK elecricity [sic] use, a complete switch to low-energy bulbs would make a real impact on our emissions and our energy bills.’

Well, lighting does account for 10 to 15 per cent of UK residential electricity use. But large-scale UK organisations already use low-energy fluorescent lighting, and use much, much more electricity on other tasks.

Only because he wants to indict ordinary people and their search for ordinary comforts can a climate zealot make the elementary mistake of believing that lighting could account for a seventh of UK electricity use.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published on 22 January 2009 by Beautiful Books.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen reckoned that global rivalries are about to go green. Rob Johnston argued that ‘green’ light bulbs are not such a bright idea. He also debunked ten myths about nuclear power. Tim Black called for little less consultation, a bit more action on nuclear power. Mick Hume was semi-incandescent over Ken’s lightbulb ‘amnesty’. Josie Appleton urged London to keep the lights on. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies , Daily Mail, 7 January 2009

(2) Lighting experts slam Mail energy efficient bulb scare story, BusinessGreen, 7 January 2009

(3) House of Commons Business and Enterprise Committee, Energy policy: future challenges, First Report of Session 2008–09, 11 December 2008, p10, para 17

(4) Product roadmaps – Domestic lighting, Defra

(5) Committee on Climate Change, Building a low-carbon economy – the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change, December 2008, Figure 2, p xxi

(6) Product roadmaps – Domestic lighting, Defra

(7) James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Energise! A future for energy innovation, Beautiful Books, p70

(8) Rage against the lights, Guardian, 10 January 2009

(9) WEEE directive, 27 January 2003

(10) Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies , Daily Mail, 7 January 2009

(11) India Knight, ‘And the EU said: let there be cold, grey light’, The Sunday Times, 11 January 2009, p18.

(12) James Woudhuysen and Ian Abley, Homes 2016, special ‘Broadside’ booklet accompanying Blueprint magazine, September 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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