x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Seeing the light: what the new energy-efficient bulbs mean for customers – and the planet

The UAE is joining countries across the globe in the campaign for more energy-efficient lighting. This month a ban on incandescent bulbs begins. Selina Denman looks at the alternatives currently on offer.

Are you ready for the end of the incandescent fixture? Getty Images
Are you ready for the end of the incandescent fixture? Getty Images

In the light bulb section in Carrefour, Mall of the Emirates, incandescent bulbs are being squeezed off the shelves. Some three-quarters of the space is taken up by energy-efficient alternatives, while the “standard bulbs” (as they are so dismissively dubbed) jostle for a spot at the far end of the aisle. Emblazoned in capital letters above the energy-efficient options is the tag line “See the world in a new light”.

And yet the woman next to me, who is pushing a pram and clearly in a rush, reaches, almost instinctively, for a 60W bulb of the decidedly non-environmentally friendly variety. She has the good grace to not look put out when I sidle up and ask her why. “I would like to buy energy-efficient bulbs, but I still don’t know what different types are available and what the best brands are,” Lina Jamjoum, who is from Jordan, explains. “Because I don’t have much time right now, it just seemed easier to go with what I know.”

These sentiments are shared by a New Zealander, Amber de Fraine, whom I meet at The Change Initiative, the Dubai-based store specialising in sustainable products. “It just takes a bit of research. It’s a matter of consciously taking the time to say to ourselves: ‘This is our lamp; could we get one of those long-lasting light bulbs for it instead?’ Price is not an issue. I don’t think it is for a lot of people in Dubai. But, off the top of my head, I don’t know how easy it is to purchase energy-efficient light bulbs in supermarkets, as opposed to places like The Change Initiative.”

As it turns out, it’s pretty easy. Across the UAE, supermarkets have been filling their shelves with energy-efficient alternatives, predominantly LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) and CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lights). Visits to Carrefour, Spinneys, LuLu and The Change Initiative offer up a handful of recurring brands: Philips, Osram, GE and LG.

But while many of the shoppers that I meet are aware of the benefits of making the switch, if you’ll excuse the pun, and seem open to the idea of adopting new technologies, few seem to realise that, within a matter of months, it will no longer be a matter of choice.

On July 1, a government ban on the import of incandescent bulbs into the UAE came into effect. Retailers and wholesalers have six months to sell off their existing stock – as of January 1, 2015, there will be a complete sales ban on any light bulbs that are not energy-efficient. The UAE is not a pioneer in this regard – countries across the globe, from early adopters Brazil and Venezuela to Australia, Russia, much of Europe and, earlier this year, the United States, have already either completely eliminated or begun the phase-out of incandescent bulbs.

The official figures have been much touted. In the UAE, lighting accounts for 20 per cent of all electricity used. This new initiative is designed to eliminate about 940,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, which is the equivalent of taking 165,000 cars off the road. But what does it mean for UAE residents, in terms of actual savings?

“Official data shows that households contribute to 71 per cent of carbon emissions in the UAE, of which 11 per cent comes from inefficient lamps,” explains Edurne Gil de San Vicente, the sustainability manager at The Change Initiative. “Based on official figures, approximately Dh452 million will be saved by households, which can be translated for a medium-size villa in Dubai into savings of up to Dh2,315 per year.”

These new energy-efficient options don’t come cheap, however. On the shelves in Carrefour, standard bulbs are selling for between Dh0.95 and Dh2.50; CFLs can cost more than 10 times as much, averaging at between Dh12 and Dh16. At The Change Initiative, I find energy-efficient light bulbs that cost more than Dh150.

But while these environmentally friendly options may represent a higher upfront investment, they also come with extremely long shelf lives. A Dh14 Philips Genie bulb promises to last for eight years, for example, while a GE LED 10W bulb will last for 20 years (if used for 2.7 hours per day). Even if they only last for half of that, it’s a very long time to not have to worry about buying any more bulbs.

Adopting these new technologies is a simple process, promises Rami Hajjar, the general manager of Philips Lighting Middle East. “It is very straightforward for people to make the switch from incandescent to energy-efficient bulbs; all they have to do is check the lamp base, bulb shape and wattage of their existing lamp, and look for the exact same lamp base, similar shape and equivalent wattage in energy-efficient bulbs. There is no need to change the light fittings, wiring, etc.”

And yet there are some that remain unconvinced. Hannah Lillywhite, for one. The Arabian Ranches resident and mother-of-two has every intention of creating a stockpile of incandescent bulbs before they completely disappear off the shelves. “It’s a nightmare,” she says. “Even when you buy the ‘warm’ versions [of the new bulbs], it’s still quite a cold light. I know they cost more but also that they last longer. We are quite green in other ways – just not with lighting. And that is only because of the quality of the light. It’s a horrible, cold light. I really hope they come up with something brighter in the near future.”

Indeed, if there is resistance to this new initiative, it is – perhaps fittingly in a place like the UAE – more likely to be linked to aesthetics than cost. It’s a commonly held and not unfounded belief that CFLs and LEDs fail to achieve the warm glow of incandescent bulbs, emitting a colder, starker light. Certainly, the bulky, looping tubes of the CFL bulb lack the delicate simplicity of the filament bulb, which is also steeped in visual symbolism. It remains to be seen whether cartoon characters of the future will have CFLs bulbs hanging over their heads when they come up with a clever idea.

It’s true that the early incarnations of CFL bulbs had a tendency to flicker, the colour of the light lacked clarity and brightness, they took a while to reach their full power and they couldn’t be dimmed. This is changing as the technology evolves and more and more investment is being poured into the industry. CFLs do, however, still contain small amounts of mercury, so they have to be carefully disposed of at the end of their lifetime.

“The level of mercury in CFL bulbs is very small, less than would fit on the tip of a pen. Nevertheless, there is obvious concern if CFL bulbs reach the landfills, as even a small amount of mercury can pollute the air and the surroundings,” says Gil de San Vicente. “The Emirates Authority for Standardization & Metrology (Esma) has developed, in coordination with local authorities, a collection scheme for bulbs. The lifespan of a CFL is long enough for the scheme to be rolled out and fully implemented before they reach the end of their life.”

LEDs have fewer pitfalls, although they do also tend to come with an even-higher price tag. Lighting manufacturers have long been developing fittings that take advantage of the many design possibilities presented by this flexible, non-heat-emitting technology. Sergio Padula, a technical director at the lighting specialist iGuzzini, likens it to a “revolution”, allowing for exciting new possibilities in terms of “shape, form and effect”.

Philips’ Hajjar is equally effusive. “In the future, LED technology will open the world to unprecedented lighting possibilities,” he says.

By then, incandescents will be a thing of the past – a defunct technology that served us well, but eventually just ceased to make environmental sense.

sdenman@thenational.ae