Banning the Lightbulb: A Reality Check

About 18 months ago the world’s media was buzzing with reports of politicians announcing proposals to “Ban the Lightbulb.” As a publicity ploy, it was very successful at grabbing headlines for the first few politicians to jump onto California State Assembly member Lloyd E. Levine’s bandwagon. Last year, Levine introduced legislation to replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs in the state. Among the first of the “me too” politicians was Australia’s Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull who was doing his best to get his increasing unpopular conservative government re-elected.

On Feb. 20, 2007, Turnbull announced his policy to the media without consulting either the rest of the government or the bureaucrats who would have to implement such a scheme: Australia was to be the first country to ban lightbulbs. As most of the minister’s announcement reads like a sales brochure for compact fluorescent lamps, much of the impact of his announcement was drowned in the public outcry about the unsuitability of CFL for a significant proportion of domestic lighting tasks.


(click thumbnail)Osram’s Halolux Classic lamps are full spectrum sources that actually fit in standard fixtures and optical systems.
Courtesy Osram
As luck would have it, despite the Australian government being one of the very few in the world to be in total denial of manmade climate change, there was a section of the Department of the Environment and Water tasked with reducing the country’s contribution to climate change. It seems that the department had set up the Australian Greenhouse Office without the politicians noticing that its very existence was a contradiction of official government policy. The AGO’s main task had been to set minimum energy efficiency standards for electrical equipment and consumer appliances.

When the Minister’s announcement was dropped on them from a great height, the AGO responded by announcing that they would develop a similar energy efficiency standard for general lighting service (domestic) lamps. To play it completely safe, the standard would conveniently not be ready until after the election.

It turned out that the government was at least as unpopular as it had feared, and the voters of Australia chose not to re-elect them, electing instead a slightly less conservative party that does believe in global warming, and claims that it wants to do something about it. The incoming government actually expanded the AGO into the new Department of Climate Change.

In the meantime the AGO had commissioned a technical study on lamp efficiency in order to have a consultant to blame if anyone didn’t like the proposed standard. That study has been released for comment and is currently awaiting approval from stakeholders before being adopted as the foundation for the standard. The current format of the proposed standard is that it should apply only to GLS lamps, which will be required to have a minimum energy efficiency of a very underwhelming 15 lumens per watt.


The Australian production industry must surely have emitted a collective sigh of relief on learning this. The standard effectively excludes all special purpose lamps, which neatly exempts everything used in production except for the practical fittings used in sets. More importantly, the energy efficiency requirement is so low that there is barely a lamp in our production inventory that doesn’t already exceed that requirement. Even at Australia’s 10 percent less energy efficient mains voltage of 240 V, 1 kW lamps produce more than 20l mW. From a production point of view the news is good, but from an environmental perspective, such low expectations are going to have a minimal impact on the production of greenhouse gasses.

To place Australia’s claim of “first country to ban the lightbulb” firmly in context, we should first acknowledge how little of any country’s greenhouse gas production is due to incandescent domestic lighting. We should then balance this with the fact that Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter (World Coal Institute figures for 2006). By generating 80 percent of its own power from coal and feeding the steel mills and power stations of Japan, Taiwan and Korea, Australian coal is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas production.

On the brighter side (yes it’s meant to be a pun), Osram has rolled together its miniature low wattage, mains voltage, Xenon lamp and its infrared reflective coating to produce a range of incandescent sources that are about 30 percent more efficient than today’s domestic GLS lamps. By packaging these miniature lamps in standard GLS envelopes, with standard domestic lamp bases, there is now a selection of higher efficiency and longer life incandescent lamps available.

Unlike their CFL counterparts, Osram’s Halolux Classic lamps are full spectrum sources that actually fit in standard fixtures and optical systems, have no flicker, and can be readily controlled by existing dimming and sensing controllers. While still substantially less efficient than CFLs, at 13l mW these lamps are within striking distance of the minimal efficiency requirements due to become mandatory in Australia, and possibly serve as a model for the rest of the world.

What is most important from the production standpoint is that the availability of these (marginally) more efficient lamps will guarantee a continuing supply of full-spectrum dimmable lamps for use in period set fixtures and props. Perhaps it will even stop the lamp hoarding spree that is currently underway among Australian set dressers, prop makers and lighting departments.