Incandescent bulbs not dead yet?

In 2007 Australia announced plans to ban incandescent light bulbs from November 2009 onwards, and in March this year the EU adopted a regulation that will phase them out from September 2009 onwards. Several other countries are also planning phase-outs. Much of the credit for this is attributed to a campaign called Ban the Bulb, which has been arguing for the banning of incandescents since 2005 on the grounds that it is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to save energy and carbon emissions.

In the US, where market-based solutions are the preferred approach, a 2007 law simply called for light bulbs to use 25–30% less energy by 2014, which appeared to rule out incandescents. In fact, it has stimulated a burst of innovation that seems to show that the old bulbs are far from dead.

Philips, for example, has introduced an incandescent that is 30 percent more efficient and lasts three times as long. In the laboratory, the same technology, developed by Deposition Sciences in Santa Rosa, has achieved a 50 percent efficiency improvement. Other similar developments involve a doubling of brightness in work at Rochester University by using lasers to pit the surface of the filament, and an iridium-coated filament at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that could potentially increase efficiency by six or seven times.

So have policy makers in Australia and Europe made the classic mistake of trying to pick a winner – or in this case a loser – technology and getting it wrong? Or is this a case of so-called ‘sailing ship syndrome’ ­– a final burst of efficiency from a dying technology, as when the last passenger sailing ships in the 1850s made their fastest ever Atlantic crossings only after they faced competition from steam ships?

One of the reasons given for the effort to boost the efficiency of incandescents is that many people dislike compact fluorescents – either because of their quality of light, slow start-up, or because of their mercury content. But this may be the wrong comparison – although it does help explain why compact fluorescents, despite their high efficiency and more than a decade of promotion, have taken remarkably little market share from ordinary incandescents.

The real question is about the future of LED lighting technology, and whether it is going to be so cheap, reliable and long-lasting that any immediate gains by incandescent technology will be beside the point. LED lighting has enormous promise and is making steady inroads into the market. If its cost drops and reliability improves enough as it rides the experience curve, Australia and the EU will have the last laugh. Particularly as their outright incandescent bans will help build the LED market faster. And if it does play out like this, ironically it will be a case of the market not the policy makers having picked the wrong loser.