German light bulb craze ahead of looming EU ban

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Germans are flocking to stores to stock up on incandescent light bulbs as Europe prepares to switch off the energy-guzzling bulbs ahead of an EU ban entering into force in September.

In March, the European Commission adopted a new regulation to gradually phase out all incandescent light bulbs and inefficient halogens between 1 September and 2012. The ban was intended to help in the EU’’ fight against climate change as the EU executive estimates that a move to efficient halogens and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) could slash the EU’s CO2 emissions by about 15 million tons every year.

The beneficiary, so the Commission believes, will be the consumer as a household will “save easily” €50 a year due to lower electricity consumption and the longer lifetime of the new lamps that will compensate for the higher purchase price.

In anticipation of the new rules, the sales of traditional light bulbs fell by as much as 35% in many European countries in the first quarter of 2009, according to the market research company Gfk. At the same time, energy-saving light bulbs have steadily increased their market share. In the UK, for example, 12.3 million were sold in the last quarter of 2008 compared with 8.9 million in the same period a year earlier.

Osram, a leading lighting manufacturer, reported that green products now account for 65% of its sales and it hopes for a boost to 80% in the coming years.

“The big trend is energy efficiency,” said Martin Goetzeler, CEO of Osram, adding that the EU decision would give a further boost to technological change.

German consumers resist

But not all regions follow suit. In Germany, consumers are now hoarding traditional light bulbs before the phase-out starts with 100-watt bulbs, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported. Some Germans have bought enough light bulbs to last them for the next two decades and retailers have joined the craze by stocking up on the energy-wasters as the bulbs on the shelves or in stocks are still allowed to be sold until they run out.

Ironically, this has boosted the profits of companies manufacturing the product. According to GfK, the sales of incandescent light bulbs in Germany were 20% higher between January and April this year compared to the same period in 2008.

Consumers argue that CFL bulbs cannot match the light quality of incandescent bulbs, saying that they are two dim and distort colours. Moreover, concerns have been raised that the flickering fluorescent light could trigger migraines or epilepsy seizures. 

Some also question the greenness of CFLs, which contain mercury and require proper recycling facilities. However, as coal-fired stations emit mercury, incandescent light bulbs indirectly emit more mercury by using up larger amounts of electricity, experts noticed.

The economic and environmental argument against incandescent lights is nevertheless convincing as they convert only around 5% of the energy they use to light, wasting the rest as heat. Fluorescent lights use up to 75% less energy than incandescent lamps, while efficient halogens that match the light quality of conventional bulbs save somewhere between 25-50% of energy.

In October 2008, EU energy ministers invited the European Commission to draft a regulation to phase out the sale of all incandescent and poorly-performing light bulbs by 2010. This is to be done within the framework of the Eco-design Directive (see EURACTIV LinksDossier), which provides performance requirements for energy-using products.

The European Parliament gave its green light to a phase-out of incandescent light bulbs on 17 February after an attempt by a group of MEPs to block the regulation was rejected (EURACTIV 18/02/09).

The Commission officially adopted a regulation to improve the energy efficiency on non-directional household lamps on 19 March 2009 (EURACTIV 19/03/09). The measure will gradually phase out all incandescent light bulbs and inefficient halogens by 2012 in favour of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) or efficient halogens.

  • Sept. 2009: Incandescent light bulbs of 100W and above will be phased out.
  • Sept. 2011: 60W incandescent bulbs phased out.
  • Sept. 2012: 40 and 25W incandescent bulbs phased out.
  • By the end of 2012: All inefficient light-bulbs phaced-out.

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