LED by the Nose

Even though lighting for television is an insignificant portion of one of the more minor uses of energy, we have an unfortunately high public profile.
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I'm writing this from a hotel room in Hong Kong, here for the InfoComm Asia show to look at the latest technologies, techniques and toys. Like every hotel I've ever stayed in, the management of this fine establishment is anxious to minimize their expenditure on my stay. There is the usual plastic card to operate the door lock, enable the lights and the air conditioning, but energy minimization in this hotel is pushing at the achievable limits of high efficiency light sources.

There are indirect "warm white" slimline fluorescent tubes in a couple of places and compact fluorescents of various sizes and warmish shades of white in the downlights of various types. However the most energy efficient devices in the room are the reading lights.

In place of the usual table lamp or desk lamp on the bedside table, protruding from the top of the bed head is an 18 inch long, 1/2 inch diameter chrome gooseneck with what appears to be a 3 watt LED chip in the end. The splat of light from this beast is a very cold blue-white, with a CRI (color rendering index) not much above the winter room temperature. It's neither a pleasant nor relaxing experience to be lying in bed, trying to read under such a brutal source.

The terrible mess of color temperatures and discontinuous spectra in the room were brought home to me last night when we tried to get a "product shot" of a replica high-fashion handbag that we had bought in the markets, to see if either of my daughters back home would like the same one.

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Although energy efficient, the light source from LEDs can be brutal. ©iStockphoto.com Val, my lifemate, had already set up the shot on the bed, using a CF downlight as her main source, but had decided that a bit of backlighting from the LED reading light would help to bring out the shape of the handbag. Not a bad lighting setup for a psychologist. However, she was a bit upset when she took her shots, that even under flash, the color of the bag was completely wrong. Even on the computer, she found that she just couldn't tweak to make them look like the real thing before e-mailing them. By now we actually had no idea of the real color of the bag, because not one of the lights in the room could show us what we had seen just hours before in the daylight.

What this exercise rammed home to me was just how far out of kilter we can get when working with discontinuous light sources and how hard it is to keep visual continuity in our pictures. I regularly warn architectural lighting designers and interior designers to collaborate very closely when considering using LEDs and some of the very high efficiency metal halide sources to keep the energy footprint low in their projects. It's very disappointing to spend a lot of money on fashionable rich brown leather furniture in a conference room, restaurant or hotel, only to find that it looks like cheap vinyl under the new earth-saving light sources.


Which brings us to an update on how Australia, the first country to "Ban the Lightbulb" is progressing down that path. Although initiated as a publicity stunt by a conservative (Republican equivalent) politician, desperate to add a tinge of green to a government with a policy of denying the existence of global warming, the ploy was unsuccessful in getting that party re-elected.

Despite the policy's marginal impact on global warming, the incoming social democrat (Democrat equivalent) government retained the plan, and one year after taking office, the first stage of the plan is now being implemented.

General lighting service lamps (the household bulb) from 60 to 150 watts may no longer be imported into the country if they fail to meet the minimum efficiency standards (which they can't), and will not be available for sale in one year's time. (It has been a few years since any were manufactured locally.) Major supermarket and hardware chains have already announced the immediate removal of these lamps from the shelves.

While there has been mild panic and confusion in some parts of the live production industry, brought on by the tendency of newspapers to go for juicy, if misinformed, headlines, the actual impact on the industry has been unremarkable. Specialist lamps, including those used for traffic management, operating theatres, stage productions, photography and movie making are explicitly exempt from the provisions of the minimum efficiency standards. They will however, have to find a suitable high efficiency, low-wattage lamp to put inside the paper lanterns on fishpoles that I so love to use for invisible fill in night close-ups.


On delving a little deeper, one could be forgiven for drawing the ever-so-slightly cynical conclusion that the whole business of banning any aspect of lighting in Australia is little more than a diversionary tactic from the world's largest coal exporter. Although touted enthusiastically by coal miners and utility companies, the much-vaunted concept of "Clean Coal," officially known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), looks set to remain just a concept for the conceivable future.

CCS requires two processes to work: Carbon Sequestration—storing carbon dioxide safely underground forever, and Carbon Capture—removing the carbon dioxide from the waste gases of coal burning devices. Underground storage of gigatons, of what has become a dangerous gas, for our descendents to deal with, entails a whole range of yet to be solved problems.

There may be some highly publicized, but as yet unevaluated, pilot programs underway to examine the possibility of storing carbon dioxide in stable geological structures, however the other half of the equation, carbon extraction, is even less advanced. There is as yet no publicly known, industrial-scale pilot project for the capture of post-combustion carbon dioxide from any form of coal burning generation system. Clean Coal looks like it will remain an oxymoron long enough to be irrelevant in any attempt to avoid a global climate disaster.


Despite the current problems with using higher efficiency light sources, there appears to be very little choice available to us other than to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels in every aspect of our society. Just recently China's total production of carbon dioxide drew level with that of the United States. If they ever become as profligate in their energy use as we are, then we're all in deeper trouble than we can even begin to imagine.

Even though lighting for television is an insignificant portion of one of the more minor uses of energy, we have an unfortunately high public profile. Because we are among the main purveyors of public information and public image, our lords and masters in the front office and the boardroom are going to make damn sure that our use of energy is demonstrably green and of minimal impact, whatever the consequences.

Andy Ciddor has been involved in lighting for more than three decades as a practitioner, teacher and writer. You can reach him via e-mail c/o TV Technology.