May the Brightest Bulb Win

Drew Halfnight
November 13, 2009

In 2012, the incandescent light bulb will be banned in Canada. Which new bulb will win the race to replace it?

For years, environmentalists have trashed the old-style incandescent light bulb as an energy hog, a fire hazard and a confounded hunk of glass and tin that can’t be recycled.

“The obvious thing to say is that incandescent technology needs to be dumped and dumped fast,” says Dave Martin, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace Canada.

In 2007, Canada got on board. Along with Australia, the U.S. and the E.U., the country passed a law effectively banning the old frosted 60-watt standard.

So began the race to reinvent the light bulb.

Taking the early lead was the compact fluorescent lamp, which uses 75 per cent less wattage and lasts 10 times longer than the standard incandescent bulb. The iconic white spirals sprouted up in promotions and giveaways in hardware stores across Canada. David Suzuki was seen hawking compact fluorescents on billboards and in TV spots, and Project Porchlight distributed over a million of the alternative bulbs in Ontario, British Columbia and the Yukon.

Despite this concerted campaign, Canadians have been slow to adopt fluorescents, or any other alternative to the traditional bulb.

What gives?

The fact is, there is still no definitive alternative to the incandescent light bulb.

Compact fluorescents, the early favourite, have proved controversial for several reasons. Consumers have complained about their odd shape, their piercing brightness and their price.

Norman Rubin of Toronto-based think tank Energy Probe remembers when he first installed an earlier version of the compact fluorescent.

“We all went ‘God help us, who wants to sit under this light?’” he said. “We hated them.”

But today, all three problems have been addressed, says Pierre Sadik, senior policy advisor for the David Suzuki Foundation, an early supporter of the compact fluorescent alternative.

“They put the spiral within a glass bulb,” he said. “And they’re making bulbs that have a warm glow to them.”

Compact fluorescents, which cost more to manufacture than traditional bulbs, list at about $5-15 per bulb. Sadik said that price will dive once the federal ban takes effect in 2012.

The chief objection to compact fluorescents, however, is that they contain toxic mercury, which is released into the air and soil when the bulbs are broken. Only about a fifth of compact fluorescents are recycled, raising the prospect of millions of toxic bulbs being crushed up in landfills.

Reports have also surfaced that hundreds of Chinese factory workers have been hospitalized due to mercury exposure from working with compact fluorescents.

Martin of Greenpeace says the environmental cost is worth the gain.

“The mercury levels in compact fluorescents are extremely low. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about it. It just means we have to keep innovating.”

Kirsten Ostling of the David Suzuki Foundation also points out that the mercury pollution produced by coal fire plants is on a much higher scale than that produced by bulb pollution.

Sadik says the spiral bulbs are likely only a temporary solution. Light-emitting diodes or LEDs, he says, are the beacon on the horizon of lighting technology.

New LED bulbs last 35 to 50 times longer than traditional bulbs and function on a fraction of the electricity. Plus, they’re recyclable.

One business listing of LED lighting manufacturers indicates no fewer than 29 Canadian companies are already capitalizing on the emerging technology.

For now, the main barrier to LED lights remains price. But Sadik says the same forces that pushed the price of compact fluorescents down will soon will work their magic for compact fluorescents.

“Invariably, the price of all of these new technologies comes down over the course of time, after early adopters start buying them and putting them in place.”

Rubin also puts his faith in the market, calling the government’s ban on incandescents and its attempt to push compact fluorescents a “nightmare.” But he is more skeptical than Sadik about the future success of LED technology.

“Some of their claimed efficiency advantage over fluorescents is based on misleading testing,” Rubin says. “LEDs have directional light. Most of the bulbs we want are multi-directional, not directional. They’re only cheap if you want one of them at a tiny intensity.”

In the meantime, several upstart lighting companies are joining the race to design the next big bulb.

This is not surprising, considering the stakes involved. Canadians use an average of 26.4 bulbs to light their homes. One bright idea could mean preeminence in the global residential lighting market.

One U.S. company, Vu1, is working on a mercury-free model for recessed ceiling fixtures that uses electron-stimulated phosphor. It will have six times the lifespan of an incandescent and cost no more than a high-end compact fluorescent bulb (about $20), according to media reports.

Other companies, especially in the U.S., are re-visitng the incandescent bulb. General Electric in 2007 introduced a high-efficiency incandescent bulb, which was said to compare favourably to fluorescent lamps in lumens per watt. Deposition Sciences in Santa Rosa, Calif., found a way to turn the excess heat produced by incandescents into more light. Scientists at the University of Rochester have improved the efficiency of standard bulbs by applying a laser to the wire filament. Other companies have developed “eco-incandescents” that use 70 per cent as much energy as standard incandescents.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are impatient for the day the last incandescent bulb is removed from store shelves.

“It’s been excruciating to see how slow governments are to push change. Typically they’re moving at glacial speed,” says Martin. “There’s no reason we should maintain this technology that’s more space-heating than lighting.”

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