Deutschland Devours the Last of Its 100-Watt Incandescent Bulbs

Some hoarding on eve of European ban on some incandescents

Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AP Photo

5 October 2010—Sales of efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) rose by an aggregate of 30 percent across Europe from September 2009 through December 2009 following the first phase of a continent-wide ban on the sale of traditional incandescent bulbs, according to figures from GfK, a market research firm in Nuremberg, Germany.

But a lot of people were not happy about it.

In the United Kingdom and Germany, people threatened to hoard incandescents. At least a few made good on the threat and snapped up thousands of the old-school bulbs. They bought so many, in fact, that in the German market, CFL sales actually fell 5 percent by last Christmas.

"In Germany and Austria there was a boom—a hoarding—on every kind of incandescent bulb," says GfK spokeswoman Alice Pirgov. "That’s why the sales of incandescents soared in those countries, whereas the figures for compact fluorescents declined."

Now new figures from GfK show an increasingly mixed picture: Compact fluorescent sales are going up in Germany, with 3 percent growth from January to June of 2010 compared with the year before. Sales are soaring in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, with increases ranging from 17 to 29 percent, in the same time frame. But CFL sales showed a 7 percent decline in the UK and Hungary and are wilting in Austria with an 8 percent drop.

An EU-directed phaseout of incandescent household bulbs came into effect a year ago, starting with a ban on the 100-watt variety. That will be followed in 2011 by a sales ban on new 60-W incandescents, with 40-W bulbs next in 2012.

IEEE Spectrum searched the Berlin underground to see how well the ban is holding up.

Lighting choices may sound like a dull affair, but the changeover is massive in terms of business and logistics: Millions of bulbs are sold annually in an $8 billion European lighting market; in just a yearlong stretch from mid-2007 to mid-2008, Britons alone bought 19 million 100-W incandescent lightbulbs. From mid-2008 to mid-2009, running up to the phaseout, another 8.7 million 100-W incandescent bulbs were sold in UK shops.

A lighting decision can be as intimate as choosing the glow that falls over your child’s pillow as you read him or her a bedtime story. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that making such a personal change is so controversial. Emotions will certainly also run high in the United States starting in 2012, when a similar effort is slated to get under way.

European officials are trying to coordinate energy-conservation efforts and cut carbon emissions in the face of climate change and the volatile and politicized fossil fuel markets. The goal is to cut primary energy use on the continent by 20 percent in the next decade. Getting rid of incandescent lighting is a big part of that effort. The European Commission memo on the phaseout says switching from incandescents can reduce total home-energy consumption by 15 percent a year, save the electricity equivalent of 11 million households annually, and cut carbon emissions by 15 million tons a year.

The traditional incandescent lightbulb has a 200-year history and works by heating a tungsten filament held in a vacuum. Incandescent bulbs emit most intensely in the near-infrared spectrum but also produce light throughout the visible spectrum. The light follows an even, continuous curve sloping through higher-intensity red and yellow to lower emissions in the blue and violet bands. Critics point to the incandescents' relatively inefficient use of electricity and the heat they generate.

But the would-be replacements for incandescents have their drawbacks, too. Decent light-emitting-diode (LED) systems are still expensive. The other main option, the CFL, contains trace amounts of mercury, is difficult to recycle, and is slightly more expensive than the incandescent. CFLs use about a quarter of the energy that incandescents do to produce the same amount of visible light, however.

But what had Germans in a twist is that CFLs do not emit in the same spectra as incandescents. Their efficiency comes from their highly concentrated electromagnetic emissions in the visible spectrum, says researcher Wilfried Pohl at Austria’s Bartenbach LichtLabor, an advanced lighting production and design lab. But big spikes in the ultraviolet and blue-violet bands produce that harsh, institutional light familiar to office cubicle drones and hospital patients everywhere. Many people hate it—and hate it enough to do something about the changeover.

Last fall, reporters zeroed in on scattered cases of hoarding: Ulf Erdmann Ziegler and his wife, residents of suburban Frankfurt, snapped up 3000 bulbs to store in their attic. Doing some back-of-the-napkin calculations, they figured it would be enough to last them the rest of their lives. Valerie Hemsley-Flint told Britain’s Daily Mail she’d spent $750 to stockpile 1000 bulbs; the tabloid also gave away 25 000 incandescents in its "outrage" at European meddling (always a sore point in the UK).

Some lighting designers aren’t too fond of the change, either. Munich resident Ingo Maurer released a manifesto decrying the directive, compact fluorescents, and their "nauseating veil of sallow colors." The ban also covers all frosted incandescent bulbs—the least efficient of all the incandescents—and this really frosted the designer. He proposed an environmental levy on less-efficient lighting sources instead, and in tongue-in-cheek umbrage at the banning of the frosted bulbs, Maurer’s studio produced the "Euro Condom," a silicone sheath meant to turn normal bulbs into softly glowing frosteds.

The changing of the lightbulbs is prompting innovation, though, and the Maurer operation has its eye on this as well. Even as the ban on 100-W incandescents took hold, Maurer launched his "WoonderLux" LED lamp, which integrates a low-voltage 9-W LED into the base of a bulb shaped like an incandescent.

While Maurer sheds tears over the "beautiful and miraculous" incandescent, young interior designers like Prague’s Martin Zampach are finding variable-brightness LEDs pleasing. "The light is…almost yellow," he says. In other words, they’re almost as good as incandescents.

About the Author

Michael Dumiak is a freelance journalist based in Berlin who writes about technology and society. In the October 2010 issue he profiled Serbian biomedical engineer Nenad Filipovic, the inventor of coronary simulation software.

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