It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. So it was that Thomas Edison's lightbulb, the idea that came to symbolise all ideas, had been in a technological rut for around a century until there was an incentive to improve it.
The traditional incandescent lightbulb loses over 90 per cent of its energy in heat: not too good in an era of mindful energy consumption. By now, with the EU's lighting legislation over a year old, you'll have noticed that the shelves previously full of cheap, 100W bulbs have been replaced by weirdly shaped, expensive new lightbulbs. By 2012, that traditional iconic glass bulb will be on the shelves no more.
The legislation provoked simultaneous demands to ‘Ban the bulb' and emotional pleas to ‘Save' it. There was the tale of an old lady stockpiling incandescent bulbs, having calculated how many she would need to last the rest of her lifetime. Many clearly have attachments to the Edison lightbulb's warm, yellow glow. But the time for sentimentality has passed...
From CFLs to LEDs
Lighting accounts for around 20 per cent of the electricity bill of the average home. Designers, lightbulb companies, energy efficiency experts had been placed, for once, in the same camp, asking: how can we make the lightbulb remain a fixture of modern life and at the same time adhere to a new, eco-conscious set of demands?
Phasing out inefficient lightbulbs will save over 3 billion kgs of CO2 per year by 2012, yet as such an emotive issue, clearly there is more on the cards than energy savings. Take the most prominent replacement to date: the Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs, or CFLs. The energy-saving benefits to these are clear - with a lifespan of between 6,000 and 15,000 hours, it is up to 15 times that of an incandescent bulb.
But there have been more than a few complaints: the shape is unappealing, the flatness of light emitted, there are no dimmer functions, too much flicker, no sparkle and warmth and so on.
Then there is the issue of the mercury in most CFLs - between 1mg and 5mg per bulb - rendering it dangerous to dispose of in landfill, or in need of special recycling, which is not always widely available (click here to find disposal facilities near you).
A new light
Many, therefore, have welcomed the introduction of Light Emitting Diodes, or LED lights, which produce light by exciting a very small semiconductor crystal. With lifetimes up to 50,000 hours, LEDs now come in the shape of the conventional bulb, come to full brightness as soon as you flick the switch and have a colour temperature range wide enough to be used from functional to decorative lighting.
Jonathan Dewey, of Litebulbs.co.uk sums it up: ‘LEDs have no mercury, aren't made with nasty chemicals, produce better light than CFLs, with no ultraviolet - so are great for display.' So passionate about LED lamps was he that Dewey created his own brand, Exergi, 18 months ago, specializing in GU10 halogen replacements (the small, bright ceiling lights now ubiquitous in modern kitchens).
Sally Storey, Design Director at John Cullen, London-based lighting specialists, says that LEDs are a great step forward, as they ‘provide a great tool for the designer':
'It is hard to provide a spotlight effect [with CFLs]. LED lights are more controllable and in terms of energy saving, its better to use a 1w LED rather than a 20w halogen to light up a hallway.'
‘The technology is moving so fast. Two years ago I wouldn't have imagined that today, 50 per cent of my work uses LEDs,' she says.
Given these accolades why haven't LEDs entered consumer consciousness yet? Because, by and large, the companies that make them feel they are too expensive and have so far limited them to trade channels. In a true chicken-and-egg situation, saving money from energy hasn't caught on because the companies that would allow it to don't think it has caught on.
Yes, £32 for a lightbulb can initially be hard to stomach. But if looked at long-term it is a no-brainer: a single LED bulb, over its lifetime, has energy savings of over £280.
The major lightbulb manufacturers each have a small but growing range of LEDs, but you won't yet find them in major retailers. Instead, there are two internet retailers specializing in LEDs, Litebulbs.co.uk and LampSpecs.co.uk that have good ranges.
LED alternatives to the traditional screw or bayonet cap GLS (traditional lamp lights):
Megaman's Sensor Light GLS is a 15W screw cap that will last 15,000 hours and retails for £7.40 at LiteBulbs.
For candle lights
Philips Novallure is a 2W Candle bulb, ideal for chandeliers, that lasts 15,000 hours. It is meant to replace a 10W incandescent lasting 1,000 hours. It is available from John Lewis for £18.95.
Osram's Parathom Candle LEDs range is available at LampSpecs from £9.
For GU10s (overhead spotlights)
Exergi have a GU10 range available at LiteBulbs meant to replace halogen lamps, which come with a 1-year guarantee. Prices start at £17.20, and one lamp will last as long as 50 halogen lamps.
GE have a range of GU10 LEDs that should soon be available at Eco Promotion.
Light on display
So far, so promising. Yet along with technological innovation, there are deeper questions that tease out our relationship to light. Late last year, at London's Victoria & Albert museum, the ‘In Praise of Shadows' exhibition was a case in point (see image gallery below). So ubiquitous is lighting, tucked in amongst a gallery of European Decorative Art, it wasn't immediately obvious it was an exhibition.
Curated by design consultant Jane Withers, the exhibition was a response to the EU legislation banning the incandescent bulb.
‘When Edison's lightbulb came out there were around 20 other patents for similar things, but his won the day. Similarly, I think we are at a period of rapid technological change. We can see all sorts of experimentation; it's an exciting time. But the things here today we won't necessarily be using in 5 or 10 years,' she says.
‘In Praise of Shadows' brought together a diverse group of artists, activists and designers. Highlights included a video of the work of Clan du Neon, a French activist group fighting nocturnal light pollution by going round turning shop sign lights off at night and ‘Sonumbra' electroluminescent wires developed for the World Bank's lighting Africa programme, shaped into a solar powered parasol that absorbs energy by day and sheds it at night.
The exhibition was meant to question the modernist idea that 'brighter is better', which led us to make up for energy efficiency gains with using more lights in our homes and offices and keeping lights on at all hours of day and night.
She says that some of the most radical research on lighting is looking at the health effects of its over-use on our natural biorhythms, or diurnal rhythms.
Yes, we need better lighting. But there needs to be, the exhibition seemed to be saying, an appreciation of its absence as well.
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor
Energy Saving Trust advice centre on 0800 512 012
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