Light Seen Down Under?

compact fluorescent bulbincandescent bulbI’ve been meaning to post about this for a few days*. It has since made it to rather high visibility in the news, I’m pleased to see, generating a lot of interesting discussion. The Australians (another nation not part of the original Kyoto agreement, notably) have pushed ahead on the issue of trying to legislatively encourage (shall we say) the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs over the more wasteful traditional incandescent bulbs.

You’ll recall my posting about this idea not long ago, in the context of proposed California legislation (so yes, I used the same images in the same way). Now, I’ll admit that I was thinking of that as a test case, and when things are ironed out into a workable legislation there one would imagine the model being rolled out to the rest of the world to adopt in their own fashion. I did not expect an entire country to adopt it so soon and at such a rate (they propose to stop sales of incandescents by 2010!).

We had a lot of discussion in that earlier thread about the pros and cons of this. Commenter IrrationalPoint (IP), for example, seems convinced that this represents a serious access problem for people who respond less favourably to the new lights. Such legislation is therefore discriminatory. My response to that was in several parts. The first is that I was not convinced that the cited flicker problems were really problems that referred to the new bulbs. They don’t work like the old nasty fluorescents we remember from years back, or that are still to be found in a lot of public spaces. Their flicker rate is up at tens of KHz, not the 60 Hz of old. IP (and one or two others) then suggested that the issues were with the spectrum. My response there was that the spectrum is quite a bit different from a lot fo the old lights, and where some discomfort might arise with the new ones, this is possibly only a problem for some if direct lighting from the light bulb is used. (I personally find direct light from incandescents pretty disturbing in a lot of cases too.) Why not use the bulbs in conjunction with a simple filter or other decorative fixture that can modify the light to your tastes?

But I am keeping an open mind on this. Perhaps I’m just wrong, and the whole idea of banning incandescents is unworkable and insensitive, but I am not convinced that work cannot be done to make sure that it works well for all concerned.

One of the biggest problems with the discussion is that nobody could point to good data on these medical/disability issues for the new fluorescent bulbs, with regards autism and related problems. Most of what is brought up is anecdotal, which does not mean that it is wrong, but it would be helpful to the discussion – and more importantly, the legislators – if good data were pointed out (and the appropriate studies done if they have not been). My final point in response to those concerns was that they should be brought to the attention of the legislators if they have not already been, and an effort made to work with the legislators to help shape the proposals to make sure that the access issue, if there is one, is circumvented. Does anyone know if the Australians have considered these matters? I cannot imagine that there has not been discussion of it, and I’d love to know what cases were made on either side. I’ve seen no discussion of this in the press, which is interesting in itself (although I am not sure exactly what that signifies, to be honest).

Let’s read some of those comments on that earlier thread again so that we do not go over already well-trodden ground, and instead move the discussion forward, if there is anything to be said.

Since I find myself on this side of the Atlantic today, I’ll give you a link to a news story on this from the UK’s Independent, written by Cahal Milmo, from which I quote:

The enforced switch to new high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs will cut Australia’s carbon emissions by four million tons by 2012 and reduce domestic power bills by up to two-thirds, the Environment Minister, Bill Turnbull, claimed. Mr Turnbull, whose right-of-centre government is a recent convert to action on global warming, said: “It’s a little thing but it’s a massive change. If the whole world switches to these bulbs today we would reduce our consumption of electricity by an amount equal to five times Australia’s annual consumption of electricity.”


(*Thanks Tameem!)

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32 Responses to Light Seen Down Under?

  1. LeisureGuy says:

    You should note that Cuba made this switch two years ago, and Venezuela is also moving in this direction:

    Cuba’s Fidel Castro launched a similar program two years ago, sending youth brigades into homes and switching out regular bulbs for energy-saving ones to help battle electrical blackouts around the island.

    The idea was later embraced by Castro’s friend and ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who announced his own program to save energy and in recent months has given away millions of incandescent bulbs in neighborhoods nationwide.

    Also, now you can find full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs.

  2. Richard says:

    Do they make versions these fluorescent bulbs with luminosity equivalent to 7.5, 15, 25, and 40 watt incandescent bulbs? I rarely have a light bulb on in my house brighter than a 40 watt incandescent bulb. I really need to adjust light levels to a low level in the evening or my sleep quality is not good. And I dislike dimmers because they inject a large amount of RF garbage into the household wiring. My local hardware store has many very low wattage bulbs, I presume because many other people like me are buying them for a reason. A huge amount of power in the US is wasted by people who light entire their houses to daylight-like levels.

  3. Lab Lemming says:

    The Environment Minister is named Malcolm, not Bill.

    And the current government has an outright majority in the Senate for the first time since the 80’s, so they’ve been passing a lot of legistlation without thinking it through carefully over the past two years…

    I should probably post on this soon, though.

  4. Cameron says:


    They do make 40 and 25 watt equivalent CFLs. I purchased one from Home Depot just the other day.

  5. Nigel says:

    Does anyone know of any issues with ultraviolet leakage causing eye damage? Most of these use some kind of fluorescent system whereby ultraviolet is produced, which hits a phosphor on the inside of the glass to produce visible light.

    When millions of these tubes are being produced, surely some are likely to not have a good uniform phosphor coating, and will leak some ultraviolet, and a sufficient dose (from someone staring at a fluorescent tube without knowing the problem) will cause harm?

    BTW, I bought one of these bulbs, “Ambience” made by Philips, for the hallway of my flat about five years ago in the belief of the claim on the packaging that it would last for 20 years and, consuming only 15 watts, would be as bright as a 60 watt bulb. It will probably last forever, because it’s in a drawer unused. The illumination is pathetic compared to a normal 60 watt bulb. It probably emits line spectra which have a peak similar to the intensity of a 60 watt blackbody spectrum at the same frequency, “justifying” their claim, but doesn’t produce any light at other frequencies.

    It is worrying about the fact that these are more expensive (and probably more polluting) to manufacture and the waste – when they finally go wrong – will include toxic mercury.

  6. Ambitwistor says:

    I don’t know that banning a specific technology is the way to go. If the problem is energy consumption, then put penalties on energy consumption, not incandescent bulb use. If you want to use incandescent bulbs but cut back on energy consumption in other ways to compensate for your sinful lighting habits, why shouldn’t you be able to?

  7. mj says:

    There is also big business coming with white light emitting diodes. They are even more energy efficeient than low-enery lamps and should have an almost infinite life-time. In Sweden they have started exchanging traffic lights for LEDs some time now with large energy savings, and no broken lights anymore.

    I have exchanged almost all my bulbs for low energy ones and have no problem with strange light or low intensity. It takes a few minutes after turing on for the bulb to reach it’s full intensity, but apart from that I have no issues with them. I think quite many people in Sweden now have low energy bulbs after IKEA started selling them quite cheaply and advertised heavily for changing.

    There was an article in the Economist a while back about LEDs for lighting called “An even brighter idea” (subscr. req’d)

  8. Ralph Hartley says:

    I’ve been using the new bulbs for years. A few notes:

    They are cheaper to use over all.

    Use incandescent bulbs in the bathroom, if you take hot showers. The moisture will ruin a compact florescent. That means you need to keep almost as many of the old bulbs on hand, just for two rooms.

    Don’t compare the brightness when it has just been turned on. Florescents are much less efficient when cold. They don’t use much more power, they produce much less light. You should see about a fourfold increase in brightness over the first five minutes.

    I use LEDs for caving, they are small, reliable, and about as efficient as you can find for low power. They are still not as efficient as florescent, but they are getting there. For monochromatic lights that turn on fast (e.g. brake lights) they can’t be beat.

    Don’t expect to see a new light source twice as efficient as CFs (They are already more than %50).

  9. JustAnotherInfidel says:

    I think one of the issues I heard raised was the fact that the flourescent lights wrok by using some mercury vapor (on BBC, I think). There were some labor groups in America who were concerned about workers being exposed to trace levels of mercury over an period of time. The concentrations are very small, but when an entire country switches to this technology, there is bound to be some problem disposing of used bulbs.

    “I use LEDs for caving, they are small, reliable, and about as efficient as you can find for low power. They are still not as efficient as florescent, but they are getting there. For monochromatic lights that turn on fast (e.g. brake lights) they can’t be beat.”

    I think I remember a MythBusters that was testing power consumption of light bulbs, and the LED bulb they had only used a fraction of the energy of the CFL. I could be wrong though.

  10. Richard says:

    Nigel said

    “It probably emits line spectra which have a peak similar to the intensity of a 60 watt blackbody spectrum at the same frequency, ‘justifying’ their claim, but doesn’t produce any light at other frequencies.”

    Most fluorescent bulbs have very unnatural light spectrums. Whereas the sun and incandescent bulbs have smooth (though not necessarily flat) spectrums, fluorescents do not. And the overall color balance is usually strange. Take a picture of something under fluorescent lights with your film or digital camera set to a daylight balance without using a flash. It never looks natural, and the worst cases will yield a sickly green skin color.

  11. Lab Lemming says:

    You know, there’s nothing stopping you from taking the spectra of lights in the light shop before buying them…

  12. mj says:

    The issue about mercury in the Low energy bulbs is a serious one, especially if recycling is not done properly and the bulbs are simply thrown in the household rubbish.

    When it comes to the spectral features of the CFLs it is indeed a line spectrum, albeit with very broad lines. However, the perceived spectrum is a convolution of the real spectrum and the eye’s sensitivity. The eye (now very simplified description) is basically sensitive for three different wavelength regions, red green and blue (so, there is physilogical, not physical reason for considering these as base colours), and the intensity of the nerve signal from these different receptors are interpreted by the brain as a specific colour. So it is possible to fool the eye to think that a line spectrum looks like a blackbody spectrum.

    A camera of course has different sensitivty and therefore one needs to correct for the changed illumination using filters (or for digital cameras, proper white-balance settings).

  13. spyder says:

    The following are just two examples of great resources that have been around for a surprisingly long time. LED’s are the future, in terms of energy efficiencies, but they still are a ways off in relation to being soothing and comforting to the eye (as yet LED’s require coatings and reflectors to enhance dispersion and provide spectral colors etc.). We are out of time and choice regarding incandescents; they must go. As human beings we need to start actually paying for our use of the planet’s resouces and pollution of its environment, rather than shrugging shoulders and promoting convenience and cheapness.

  14. There seems to be very little research on the issues of fluorescents and people who are neurologically hypersensitive to them. Which is a real shame, and not only for this debate.

    I still think it would be irresponsible to ban the sale of incandescents without either research showing that CFLs are not a problem, or widespread anecdotal evidence suggestin that the new bulbs aren’t problematic.

    ‘In Sweden they have started exchanging traffic lights for LEDs some time now with large energy savings, and no broken lights anymore.’

    In the UK too. Bike lights are generally LED too. They’re great for visibility, although I’m not sure how good they are for lighting up a room, which requires projection. There should be a way around that, though.


  15. Lab Lemming says:

    mj, that’s a good point about camera sensitivities- my digital camera seems to see violet better than my eyes, but what I see as yellow it thinks is green- the threshhold for the red detectors seems a bit lower.

  16. Manas Shaikh says:

    That is a very important issue. The US being the monster in power consumption, both Electric and Oil, it must act in order for anything to work.

    I was happy to see Australia taking a stand.

  17. It’s very easy to say that “we are out of time and choice” regarding incandescents when your lifestyle will probably not have to change radically to acoomodate CFLs or other options. Some people may not be able to use incandescents. How do we decide which is more important — environment or people (bearing in mind that there are lots of ways that people can take responsibility for environmental issues, not all of which may affect some people’s health and wellbeing).

    Certainly people who are able to do so should be encouraged to used CFLs and be more energy efficient generally in other ways too. I’d love to see advertising that makes CFLs look sexy and money-saving and stuff so that people will use them more. I’d also love to see other measures like congestion charges in cities other than London, better public transport, more people using green fuels if they do have to use cars (eg, in London you are exempt from the congestion charge if you use liquified petroleum gas instead of petrol), more support for local produce markets so that apples isn’t flown halfway around the world when we can grow them perfectly well here. I do think governments should take a stand on these issues, but I think they should take into account the needs of people.


  18. spyder says:

    How do we decide which is more important — environment or people

    Ugh??? You are kidding right??? There is no either/or here; without a healthy sustainable environment (one that provides clean air & water, ample and sufficient food and energy resources, reduced eco-systemic collapses) humans and most other species cannot survive. James Lovelock suggested a month ago, that he expects the population of the planet to reach a sustainable level of around 500 million by 2100, and possibly as few as 200 million. This is planet-wide, not just the US. Projected and modeled expectations for systemic and infrastructure collapses (as far back as the Global 2000 report of 1980) predict up to 200 million humans dying per year beginning around 2037; most suffering from toxic water and greater susceptability to disease pathologens. Without a healthy environment humans–who are necessarily co-dependent upon countless species of monerans, plants, and animals–will not long survive.

    Suggesting that the choice is between people (jobs, economies, convenience, access) and the planet’s health requires axioms that frame humans as something other than another species of the planet. Such dichotomies are inappropriate and the root of many of the causes of the environment’s potential complete collapse.

  19. Adam says:

    If you outlaw incandescent lightbulbs, only outlaws will own incandescent lightbulbs.

    Sypder, do you think that those projections (in particular, Lovelock’s future population predictions) are accurate? I don’t see it myself. What, India and China cease to exist? Billions of people don’t have kids? Or are you seriously expecting that sort of number of people won’t have any kids? People being born today will grow up and have children that are still alive in 2100. I don’t see how the numbers add up.

  20. Adam says:

    Ack, that was supposed to say ‘billions of people die?’

  21. Spyder (and everyone else):

    I’m not kidding, and I’m not being rhetorical.

    I know it’s not an absolute either/or. But it is a question of priorities. Sicne there are so many ways to decrease our harmful effect on the environment, prioritising these needs affect the stategies we pick for minimising eco-damage.

    We could say “we’re not going to use any more incadescents” and tell people who are neuorologically hypersensitive to … what? Lump it, I guess, and live with permanent nausea and migraines and being unable to function until LEDs become viable. (An easy suggestion for those who don’t have to live with it.)

    We could all stop buying airplane-imported produce…safe in the knowledge that producers in developing countries will have no income and starve, and the economies and infrastructures of dozens of companies will collapse.

    We could set some flat limit on carbon dioxide emissions for all countries…and potentially limit industrialisation and infrastructure development of poorer countries, causing economic problems, potentially including starvation. (NB, infrastructure collapse has other consequences for the environment as well as people)

    If we use all and any strategy that is at all possible to minimise our impact on the environment, we will cause human suffering. So if our motivation for getting our act together with regard to the planet is that people will suffer if we don’t, we need to rethink what we want to accomplish.

    So, yes, there is a question of priorities. We need to balance people’s needs and environment needs (even though there is an intersection of the two). The question is: how do we do that?

    There are lots and lots of ways to minimise environmental damage. Banning incandescents doesn’t have to be one of them right now, while we don’t have a viable alternative for people with disabilities. There are lots of other things that *are* viable though: developing LED lights so they’re a viable option for widespread use, using green fuels instead of petrol, congestion charges, public transport systems, caps on CO emissions for wealthier companies, importing by ship instead of plane, and tonnes of other ways.

    It’s not as simple as convenience. It is possible to be reckless with initiatives for energy efficiency, and recklessness can have serious health consequences for some people. This is the case with lightbulbs, and my example of a reckless way of minimising food-miles is a more drastic example. Access isn’t trivial, by the way…especially if your own home isn’t accessible.

    It’s very easy to talk about access, people, etc as details. But given that we can employ so many other strategies for energy efficiency, why get hung up on this one?


  22. I started replacing incandescent bulbs with CF bulbs starting about six years ago. I replace the incandescents when they die. So, there will probably be basement closet lights for a long time to come. I have one in my bathroom where the shower is. It seems fine. It’s a good deal brighter than the incandescent bulbs also there. One of the CF bulbs that have died turns out to be in a three-way light bulb fixture. That may be problematic. CF bulbs also don’t cope with dimmers.

    Why get hung up on this issue? Lighting uses soemthing like 25% of the electrical energy we use. CF’s use something like 20% of the energy of incandescents. So, something like 20% of electrical power could be saved. That’s really big.

    My el-cheapo 4 door sedan is getting an average of 43 MPG. That’s much better than it’s 32 MPG EPA rating. I get it by driving 60 MPH instead of 70 MPH. I want to add a cruise control soon, and push it to closer to 50 MPG. I estimate that a $100 cruise control pays for itself in my car in about 25,000 miles. That’s less than a year for me. But, I’d put one in anyway. I like them. I consider it a comfort issue.

    I’m also adding insullation to my house. It appears to pay for itself pretty fast. And, the house is less drafty.

  23. I’ve seen no discussion of this in the press, which is interesting in itself (although I am not sure exactly what that signifies, to be honest).

    That most people aren’t aware of the disability issue, and most people who are told and aren’t affected by it don’t really care that much.

    There’s very little reasearch into balance disorders — as far as I know the current treatment methods are over half a century old. There’s reasearch into autism, but little or none of it seems to be about lighting.


  24. Anonymous Snowboarder says:

    GE has announced new bulbs (google on GE HEI) which are supposed to rival the efficiencies of CF. Won’t be widely available for another few years but they will not have the many problems of CF.

  25. Clifford says:

    Thanks! (Although I’m still trying to learn what these “many problems of CF”… the real ones, as opposed to the imagined, I mean,


  26. Clifford: perhaps you could help encourage research on this? One of the problems with Meniere’s is that there is very little or no research on these issues, and very little funding. Research money is going to “sexier” science. A lot of doctors don’t even know about balance disorders. It’s a hugely under-researched field.

    Incidentally, you can probably get more info about new CFLs and autsim etc if you contact charities and campaigning groups directly, since these groups often have more info than what they publish online. You could try phoning or mailing some organisations for autistic people to get more info.


  27. Clifford says:

    All true. I should mention that you can get that information too, and are just as effective (or not!) in getting people to do research on this as I am. My reach into those issues is not greater than yours.



  28. True. The reason I suggested you try contacting such organisations is that organisations in California may have more information about newer CFLs whcih is what you’re after. In the UK, most CFLs are the slightly older 60 Hz variety, so most of the information from UK organisations is likely to be about those CLFs, which is not what you’re after.


  29. Say Lee says:

    Just finished watching the ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ on Google Video here (, after having been alerted to it by this article (

    The video features a panel of notable scientists from US, Canada, UK, Japan, Israel who claim that the man-made global warming movement has evolved into a climate change orthodoxy such that dissenters are branded as heretics and likened to holocaust deniers. They claim that global warming is driven by sun, or rather sun spot activity, and CO2 is irrelevant. And that there is a corruption of the peer review process in IPCC.

    But their “claims” are not without basis, showing a long-term correlation between sun spot activity and temperature change and a several hundred year lag of CO2 change behind temperature change.

    How are we to make of these?

  30. Clifford says:

    There’s a huge amount of discussion about this on the RealClimate blog. The chain of causation is not as sound as it seems, and I’ve heard that they’ve not been honest about their data, their editing of contributions from some of the scientists that *seem* to support what they say, etc.

    But the relation to solar activity is an interesting one to consider, as one of my colleagues pointed out the other day: Even if there is no obvious cause and effect cycle…. how much worse will things be if we’ve primed our atmosphere with an excess of CO2? Do we want to sit around and wait and find out?

    Have a look at the discussion on RealClimate.



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