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UK Domestic Lighting Policy

Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

In 2007 the UK government began to force incandescent bulbs from the lighting market, and coerced domestic consumers to purchase instead compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Within four years government had succeeded in filling nearly all the UK’s 600 million domestic lamps with such bulbs at a cost of several billion pounds. However, with the recent advent of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), which consumers will buy without coercion, the CFL policy now appears premature and its cost quite needless.

Energy efficiency measures are a crucial component of many national and regional climate policies. Indeed, it is not unduly cynical to suggest that they often function as a free parameter, enabling government planners to give the appearance of cost limitation by introducing optimistic assumptions with regard to energy conservation. The European Union’s presentation of its Products Policies may be taken as typical:

The result of these labels and standards will be an energy saving of around 175 Mtoe by 2020, roughly equivalent to the annual primary energy consumption of Italy. For consumers, this means a saving of €465 per year on household energy bills. Moreover, energy efficiency measures will create €55 billion in extra revenue for European companies.

Note, however, that no reference is made to the capital cost of equipment under such measures, which at the least must offset to some degree, perhaps a significant degree, any saving.

As one would expect, given the mountainous renewables targets specified for the UK,  the Westminster government has been particularly enthusiastic in pursuing this agenda, and in two important cases even driving ahead of the EU regulations.

In March 2007, while Chancellor, Gordon Brown MP, announced his ambition that incandescent light bulbs would be phased out ahead of the EU timetable, and replaced with Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), and this was quickly confirmed on the 27th of September when Hilary Benn MP, then Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), announced the regulations to deliver this outcome. Mr Benn commented:

Britain is leading the way in getting rid of energy-guzzling light bulbs and helping consumers reduce their carbon footprint. Choosing energy saving light bulbs can help tackle climate change, and also cut household bills, with each bulb saving up to £60 over its lifetime. (DEFRA, Press Release)

Shop sales of such bulbs do not appear to have been initially high, but this did not matter since under the government’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Target scheme (CERT) electricity supply companies distributed 304 million such bulbs to domestic consumers in the period April 2008 to April 2011, after which time CFLs were not eligible under CERT.

Some estimates put the number of lamps in the UK at about 600 million, with each household having about 24 bulbs (House of Commons Library, Standard Note SN/SC/4958, “The Phasing out of Incandescent Light Bulbs”), so the CERT scheme must be reckoned to have achieved very significant penetration in a very short time. Indeed, Ofgem’s final review of the programme in 2013 concludes that:

The promotion of CFLs has transformed the market, with incandescent light bulbs largely being displaced. The level of subsidy for CFLs would appear to have been a key factor in achieving this transformation. (The final report of the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) 2008-2012)

However, this remarkable impact has come at some cost. It is not clear how much companies paid for such bulbs, but if we assume £5 per bulb, the current retail price, the total transformation cost of the CFL programme can be estimated at about £1.5bn, a sum which would have been recovered from consumer bills. (CERT and the CERT extension, 2008 to 2012, cost consumers about £5.4bn in total, so this estimate seems plausible.)

Assuming that Ofgem is correct, and that this coerced purchase and cross subsidy, combined with low availability in the shops, did indeed mean that a majority of the UK’s 600 million domestic lamps were filled with CFLs, say 550 million, that implies a total cost of about £2.75 billion.

Whether that many remain in service is doubtful. The bulbs were not popular, due to the slow warm-up time, light quality, flicker and, a disappointingly short lifetime under real-world conditions, somewhere in the region of three years, well under the often cited eight years and certainly not long enough to achieve the savings claimed by Mr Benn. Many hardware stores have responded by continuing to sell incandescent lights via the exception made for so-called ‘Rough Duty’ bulbs, which are cheap and robust versions of the traditional incandescent variety and intended for situations, such as a workshop or a handheld inspection lamp, where vibration might make the use of CFLs impossible.

These bulbs are still widely available, and much used, but this loophole will shortly be closed. However, the impact on consumers should be relatively small, since bulbs based on Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are now entering the market in volume, and appear popular. Anyone with experience of LEDs will know that they are preferable to CFLs, with basic properties not that dissimilar from incandescent bulbs, though with lower energy consumption and longer lifetimes (how much longer remains to be seen).

There is, of course, no mandate for LEDs as compared to CFLs, but it is already clear that they are likely to sweep CFLs out of the system on merit alone. I am myself already replacing expensively purchased and still functioning CFLs with new LEDs because they are better, and I do not suppose that mine is an isolated case.

It seems very likely, therefore, that the well-meaning interventions of Mr Brown and Mr Benn have resulted in the needless expenditure of two to three billion pounds on inadequate CFLs, when the market would have moved spontaneously from incandescent bulbs to LEDs within a decade.