Calling for common sense to promote energy efficient lighting

Simon Brammer, who works for works for the sustainable energy charity Ashden, writes an excellent article in the Guardian Professional about consumer confusion over choosing energy efficient lighting.  His suggestions call for common-sense labelling and better marketing.

How many incentives does it take to change a light bulb?

If I asked you to give me £100 and guaranteed to give you £400 back six months later, would you accept my offer? This is the kind of return on investment that LED light bulbs offer. So why aren’t more people switching to low-energy bulbs?

There’s a lot of noise about the power of new technology to drive positive change – but how do we get people to adopt it? Looking at innovation in lighting offers the chance to, ahem, shed some light on the question.

Take my friend Gary. After receiving a large electricity bill he decided to switch his light bulbs to LED. He knew what he wanted – a brightness and colour similar to the output of his existing incandescent bulbs. Not too much to ask, surely?

Problem was, once he got to his local DIY store Gary got lost in an aisle stacked with hundreds of LED bulbs and terms he had never heard of before: lux, lumens, kelvin, candela and so on. He asked a member of staff to help him, but they were no wiser than he. Initial enthusiasm swiftly turned into frustration and confusion, and Gary returned home with no new bulbs and a headache.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Health argue that knowing too much about something often leads to a failure to communicate the benefits in a way that ‘lay’ people can understand. They call it “the curse of knowledge”. If you look at light bulbs, consumers are overwhelmed with technical information at fails to answer basic questions – like what purpose the bulb is suitable for, how bright it is, what colour it produces and how much energy it saves. So what’s the solution?

Get the labelling right

For a start, manufacturers need to let go of what they know and focus on what consumers need. That means providing labelling that doesn’t require a PhD in physics to understand.

One simple thing they can do is explain wattage equivalents. Most people know that a 100-watt bulb is bright and suitable for a main light, that a 60w bulb is suitable in a lamp, and 25w bulb works where we want soft and gentle light. LED bulbs use about 10% of the energy of traditional bulbs – so 10w will give you the equivalent light output of an old 100w bulb, 6w of a 60w bulb, and so on. Why not explain that on the label?

Focusing on what consumers need to know also means communicating likely financial savings. Without knowing just how much money they could be saving by switching to low-energy bulbs, it’s easy to see why someone might go for the cheaper option and choose a halogen bulb for £1.50 instead of its LED equivalent at £5.99.

But when you add in the running and replacement costs of the bulbs over 15 years, the choice looks very different: £330 for a halogen bulb and £35.99 for an LED replacement. Lifetime running cost information on packaging would provide a persuasive case for making a low-energy choice.

Make desirable products

We all want beautiful things in our homes. There’s certainly progress from the early days of LED light bulbs which produced a cold, blue puddle of light. Happily, many of the newer LEDs come in myriad shapes and colours and can create beautiful lighting schemes, are dimmable and fit perfectly into any existing light fittings. So let’s see this kind of consistency across the range. The danger now is that anyone buying a cheaper LED bulb might end up with poor output and a shorter life expectancy, which will reinforce negative misconceptions rather than changing our perceptions for the better.

The newer light bulbs are also increasingly programmable. New developments in GreenChip light bulbs, which respond to your home wi-fi network, make it possible for us to control home lighting with our smartphones. All of a sudden, the humdrum light bulb becomes a lot more exciting – and desirable.

A nudge from government

Of course, all this is not just down to the manufacturers: government must play a role too. A step in the right direction was the EU announcement in 2009 on the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs. They are now against the law in the UK, with an EU target for halogen bulbs to follow suit by 2016.

But our government could be doing more. For a start, it could provide incentives to stimulate the LED lighting market. It could do worse than following the lead of the Spanish government, which in 2006 introduced a scheme where people replacing old domestic appliances with energy efficient ones would be provided a rebate at the checkout of between €75 (£62) and €105 (£86.80).

In turn, retailers received €5 (£4.14) per sale to cover their costs. By the end of 2010, 3m energy-efficient appliances had been distributed, creating savings of 2,238 GWh – that’s enough to power 4% of Spanish households. You can read more about other energy efficiency schemes across the EU in a new report by Global Action Plan.

And incentives don’t just encourage a change in buying behaviour, the also push down the price – just look at solar panels. As a result of feed in tariffs they now cost a faction of what they cost three years ago, showing that incentives don’t need to be in place for long for the market to catch up.

The government could also do with making lighting part of existing energy efficiency programmes, like the Green Deal or the Energy Company Obligation. In this way, LED light bulbs would be become more commonplace in people’s homes by being affordable to those on lower incomes. And the economies of scale achieved would have the added benefit of driving prices down.

So with the right point of sale information, a common-sense approach to labelling, marketing that makes efficient lighting desirable combined with a nudge from government, you get a double win: the country gets a step closer to our carbon reduction targets, and Gary gets a lower energy bill.

4 thoughts on “Calling for common sense to promote energy efficient lighting

  1. I love how articles on anglophone newspapers often start with Gary’s, or Bryan’s, or Richard’s story.

    Agree with most of the points in the article, but the labelling part is far from being that simple, particularly when it comes to displaying money savings. The energy label is a European one, however energy pricing depends on which country, region and municipality you live in. And who your energy provider is.

    What we need is en energy/IT geek to develop an app that can do all of those calculations for you. You scan the bulb (or TV, or washing machine for that matter), you tell the app where you live, who your energy company is and how long you expect to have the bulb for, and your phone tells you how much will you be spending on energy over its lifetime. It could be more sophisticated but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    1. This point on displaying money savings (or actual costs) is not simple in Europe at all, as you say. I love the idea of the app. Surely there is someone out there who can lead the way.

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