In praise of the incandescent light bulb

Today is the first day of Stage 1 of the Commission Regulation (EC) 244/2009†, implementing Directive 2005/32/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council with regard to ecodesign requirements for non-directional household lamps – or in plain English, the prohibition of incandescent light bulbs.

This is a very stupid piece of legislation, even for EU standards. The ostensible reason is to make sure people use less energy, and therefore reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the EU. In classical totalitarian fashion, the Commission decides for the people, the people themselves have no say in the matter.

Shouldn’t people be allowed to decide for themselves how much energy they use, and in what way? After all, they do pay for it.

The EU Commission reasons that there are suitable replacements for the good, old, proven incandescent light bulb (which I would like to call the classical bulb, it rolls better off the tongue and off the fingers). However, LED lighting is still in its infancy, and the only large scale alternative are fluorescent lamps. But those have problems of their own.

First of all, mercury vapor. If a flourescent lamp breaks, it sets free its mercury as vapor. Do not inhale, it is toxic. In fact, it is so toxic that the EU Commission went to great lengths to prohibit its use (RoHS, Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, Directive 2002/95/EC). On the other hand, this new regulation makes its use mandatory – you could call that schizophrenic.

Of course, the Commission wants to handwave around its apparent stupidity by claiming that the regulation reduces the amount of mercury released into the environment. Coal contains trace amounts of mercury; when coal is burned to produce electricity, this mercury is emitted with the flue gas. Now the reasoning is that flourescent lamps use less energy than incandescent ones, therefore less coal is burned, making up for the mercury from flourescents which are not properly recycled.

However, coal is used for producing base load – when energy use diminishes slightly (and we are talking here about a minor effect, only a very small percentage of energy is used on classical bulbs), base load won’t be reduced at all; after all, it’s the cheapest component of electricity production. Peak load will be used less, but this does not produce that much mercury. Furthermore, exactly those eco-types who advocate the ban on classical light bulbs, also advocate shutting down all coal plants. And countries with a sensible policy regarding electricity production, e. g., France, don’t use coal plants at all. And very importantly, when coal plants release mercury, they do so in a very diluted way, spreading it over large amounts of atmosphere. When flourescent lamps break in your living room, you have a high concentration of poison where it matters. And even if those lamps don’t break, but simply go to a landfill, you have a locally higher concentration than flue gas from coal plants could ever produce. Therefore, a efficient recycling regime is necessary. However, the Commission was happy with forcing us to abandon classical bulbs, without such a recycling regime (in Cologne, a city with one million inhabitants, there are two places where you can get rid of flourescents; most citizens won’t take it on them to travel there, but just put the flourescents into the garbage can, and I won’t blame them).

The EU’s claim that mercury release is reduced misses the point – what counts is where the mercury is released. In this case, in your living-room.

Next, flourescent lamps don’t light up instantly, but take up to three minutes to reach full brightness. Which makes them useless for lighting staircases or interior baths, where one minute of light is often enough. Furthermore, flourescents survive only a limited number of switch cycles – if they are used only for short periods, they lose their longevity advantage to classical bulbs. And as flouroscents use more energy for production, they even waste energy. That is the reason why I use flourescents only where they make sense, i. e., where they are switched on for longer periods, and incandescents where they are switched on only for short periods. But the EU Commission does not want to afford me that decision; after all, I only have a PhD in theoretical physics, I must not be trusted with calculating energy consumption.

Next, incandescents are a well established, well understood technology. While Edison did not invent the light bulb, he improved it enough to make it commercially viable in 1879. Since 1913, the light bulb with metal filament and inert gas filling was practically unchanged. Its reliability is well understood, its production process, too. Flourescent lamps, however, are a much more complicated piece of technology. Not only have they a tube filled with gas, they also have electronics on board. And if these electronics (transistors, rectifiers, capacitors) are of low quality, they can fail prematurely. And you have no way of knowing beforehand if this is the case. And as China specializes on low-quality electronics, you can be sure that some of the flourescents you can buy in the future will fail much earlier than anticipated – the cheaply made in China syndrome‡. It would be nice if you could choose to stay with incandescents for critical applications, but the EU Commission doesn’t like that.

So, instead of developing a future-proof, more powerful energy infrastructure (which would be a challenging task), the EU Commission prefers to reduce the electricity consumption by a few TWh (which sounds like a lot, but is only a drop in the bucket in the big picture), by making the use of a potentially toxic product mandatory, even in cases where its use is nonsensical. Be content with less, not more – a very puritanical approach. And in typical puritanical fashion, the Commission wants to control our everyday life even in small details, like which light we use in our bedrooms. A central bureaucracy dictating every detail of our lives – watch Brazil for a vision where this leads (Central Services could become very real, too).


† When searching for 244/2009, Google helpfully offers 244 / 2009 = 0.121453459, displaying much more common sense than the European Commission.

‡ I should write about this soon, as I was severly bitten by that syndrome last week.

About Daniel Tiggemann

Software-developer living in Cologne, Germany. Was once a physicist, specialized in computer simulations and parallel programming. Now more into JavaScript, web frontend development, and especially mobile computing.
This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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