EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

Chapter 4. Stabilizing Climate: An Energy Efficiency Revolution: A Revolution in Lighting Technology

Since the lighting sector is on the edge of a spectacular revolution based on new technologies, perhaps the quickest, most profitable way to reduce electricity use worldwide is simply to change light bulbs.

The first advance in this field came with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which use 75 percent less electricity than old-fashioned incandescents. Replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs that are still widely used today with new CFLs can reduce the electricity used for lighting by three fourths. Over its lifetime, each standard (13 watt) CFL will reduce electricity bills by roughly $30. And though a CFL may cost twice as much as an incandescent, it lasts 10 times as long. Each one reduces energy use compared with an incandescent by the equivalent of 200 pounds of coal over its lifetime. For perspective, the energy saved by replacing a 100-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL over its lifetime is sufficient to drive a Toyota Prius hybrid car from New York to San Francisco. 8

CFL production in China, which accounts for 85 percent of the world total, climbed from 750 million units in 2001 to 2.4 billion units in 2006. Sales in the United States climbed from 21 million CFLs in 2000 to 397 million in 2007. Of the estimated 4.7 billion light sockets in the United States, close to 1 billion now have CFLs. 9

The world may be moving toward a political tipping point to replace inefficient light bulbs across the board. In February 2007 Australia announced it would phase out the sale of incandescents by 2010, replacing them with CFLs. Canada soon followed with a 2012 phaseout goal. In early 2009, the European Union (EU) approved a phaseout of incandescent bulbs, one that will save the average EU consumer 25–50 euros each year. 10

Brazil, hit by a nationwide electricity shortage in 2000–02, responded with an ambitious program to replace incandescents with CFLs. As a result, an estimated half of the light sockets there now contain these efficient bulbs. In 2007, China—working with the Global Environment Facility—announced a plan to replace all its incandescents with more-efficient lighting within a decade. And India is planning to phase out incandescent bulbs by 2012. 11

Retailers are joining the switch too. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, began an ambitious marketing campaign in 2007 to boost its cumulative U.S. sales of compact fluorescents to over 260 million. Currys, Britain’s largest electrical retail chain, went further—discontinuing sales of incandescent light bulbs in 2007. 12

For office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, where linear (tubular) fluorescents are widely used, the key to cutting electricity use is shifting to the most advanced models, which are even more efficient than CFLs. However, since linear fluorescents are long-lasting, many of those now in use rely on an earlier, less energy-efficient technology.

The second major advance in lighting technology is the light-emitting diode, which uses up to 85 percent less electricity than incandescents. Although LEDs are the ultimate in lighting efficiency, they are still too costly for most uses. They are rapidly taking over several niche markets, however, such as traffic lights, where they now have 52 percent of the U.S. market, and exit signs in buildings, where they hold 88 percent of U.S. sales. New York City has replaced traditional bulbs with LEDs in many of its traffic lights, cutting its annual bill for maintenance and electricity by $6 million. In early 2009, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city would replace its 140,000 street lights with LEDs, saving taxpayers $48 million over the next seven years. The resulting reduction in carbon emissions would be like taking 7,000 cars off the road. 13

Universities are also getting involved. In California, the University of California-Davis has a Smart Lighting Initiative. One of its first projects was to replace all the light bulbs in a campus parking garage with LEDs, dramatically reducing electricity use. This success has evolved into LED University, a project to disseminate this technology. Early adopters include the University of California-Santa Barbara, Tianjin Polytechnic University in China, and the University of Arkansas. 14

LEDs offer another strong economic advantage. While CFLs last 10 times as long as incandescents, LEDs last 50 times as long. Indeed, a typical LED installed at the time of a child’s birth will still be working when the youngster graduates from college. The savings in commercial situations from both lower electricity costs and the virtual elimination of replacement maintenance often more than offsets the higher initial cost. 15

In addition to switching bulbs, energy can be saved just by turning lights off when they are not in use. There are numerous technologies for doing this, including motion sensors that turn lights off in unoccupied offices, living rooms, washrooms, hallways, and stairwells. Sensors and dimmers can also be used to take advantage of daylighting to reduce the intensity of interior lighting when sunlight is bright. In cities, dimmers can be used to reduce streetlight intensity. In fact, these smart lighting technologies can cut the electricity use of LEDs to less than 10 percent of that with incandescents. 16

In summary, shifting to CFLs in homes, to the most advanced linear fluorescents in office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, and to LEDs in traffic lights would cut the world share of electricity used for lighting from 19 percent to 7 percent. This would save enough electricity to close 705 of the world’s 2,670 coal-fired plants. If the high cost of LEDs drops faster than we have assumed, making widespread use feasible, lighting efficiency gains will come even faster than we have projected. 17

In a world facing almost daily new evidence of climate change and its consequences, a quick and decisive victory is needed in the battle to cut carbon emissions and stabilize climate. A rapid shift to the most energy-efficient lighting technologies would provide just such a victory—generating momentum for even greater advances in climate stabilization.

Previous Table of Contents Next


8. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DOE, “Energy Star Change a Light, Change the World,” fact sheet (Washington, DC: 23 April 2007); Larry Kinney, Lighting Systems in Southwestern Homes: Problems and Opportunities, prepared for DOE, Building America Program through the Midwest Research Institute, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (Boulder, CO: Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, June 2005), pp. 4–5.

9. Alice McKeown, “Strong Growth in Compact Fluorescent Bulbs Reduces Electricity Demand,” Vital Signs Online (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 27 October 2008); “Alliance Calls for Only Energy-Efficient Lighting in U.S. Market by 2016, Joins Coalition Dedicated to Achieving Goal,” press release (Washington, DC: Alliance to Save Energy, 14 March 2007); DOE, Big Results, Bigger Potential: CFL Market Profile (Washington, DC: Energy Star, March 2009).

10. Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, “World First! Australia Slashes Greenhouse Gases from Inefficient Lighting,” press release (Canberra, Australia: 20 February 2007); Rob Gillies, “Canada Announces Greenhouse Gas Targets,” Associated Press, 25 April 2007; European Parliament, “Incandescent Light Bulbs: Environment Committee Backs Phase-Out Plan,” press release (Brussels: 17 February 2009).

11. International Energy Agency (IEA), Light’s Labour’s Lost: Policies for Energy-efficient Lighting (Paris: 2006), p. 375; Deborah Zabarenko, “China to Switch to Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs,” Reuters, 3 October 2007; Greenpeace India, “India’s Light Bulb Phase Out: Setting a Smart Example,” press release (New Delhi: 25 February 2009).

12. Retailer rankings from Deloitte, Feeling the Squeeze, Global Powers of Retailing 2009 (London: 2009); Walmart Stores Inc., “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Fact Sheet” (Bentonville, AR: 2009); Hillary Osborne, “Currys to Stop Selling Incandescent Bulbs,” Guardian (London), 13 March 2007.

13. CREE LED Lighting, “Ultra-Efficient Lighting,” at www.creelighting.com/efficiency.htm, viewed 17 April 2009; Navigant Consulting Inc., Energy Savings Estimates of Light Emitting Diodes in Niche Lighting Applications (Washington, DC: DOE, rev. October 2008); Anthony DePalma, “It Never Sleeps, But It’s Learned to Douse the Lights,” New York Times, 11 December 2005; “Mayor Villaraigosa, President Clinton Light the Way to a Greener LA,” press release (Los Angeles, CA: Office of the Mayor, 16 February 2009).

14. “Smart LED Lighting Makes Parking Garages Greener, Safer,” Environment News Service, 13 January 2009.

15. LED life calculated from EPA and DOE, op. cit. note 8, and from “Company Profile: Expanding LED Possibilities at Samsung Electromechanics,” LEDs Magazine, April 2007.

16. IEA, op. cit. note 11, pp. 25, 29, 38; CREE LED Lighting, op. cit. note 13.

17. Energy savings from lighting efficiency calculated using IEA, op. cit. note 11, pp. 25, 29, and IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008 (Paris: 2008), p. 507; coal-fired power plant equivalents calculated by assuming that an average plant has a 500-megawatt capacity and operates 72 percent of the time, generating 3.15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute