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NZ lags behind in energy efficient lighting

Global warming, rising C02 levels and environmental damage is seeing environmentalists, Governments and a growing number of ordinary folk becoming more concerned with improving energy efficiency.

Then there’s another equally compelling reason – money. With winter looming, many are looking at ways to cut electricity costs as heating adds an additional financial burden.

Around the world, Governments have introduced laws to encourage people to move to more energy efficient lighting. Frustratingly, it seems that many Kiwis and our Government simply aren’t getting it. 

The range of energy efficient lighting options and the relative pros and cons for each option are all add up to create confusion for Kiwi consumers. The net result is that many are sticking with the status quo as the whole energy efficient lighting issue is just too difficult.

But here’s the thing. It really isn’t. The humble light bulb has changed little since it was invented way back in 1879. They work when an electric current is passed over a metal filament that heats up and glows, also creating light. While there is a school of thought that says this is a tried and tested method of lighting, its efficiency is abysmal.

Much of the energy consumed by old school incandescent lights is converted to heat rather than light. According to EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority), a bog standard 75w incandescent bulb on average costs $22.20 per year to run. That mightn’t sound like a lot of money until you multiply that by the total number of lightbulbs in your house. Then there’s the issue of life expectancy.  According to EECA our 75w incandescent bulb will on average last about a year. Then you’ve got to fork out anything between 80c to $1.80 for a replacement.

The news gets better with an energy efficient 20w CFL (compact florescent) bulb which in theory will output about the same brightness as a 75w incandescent bulb. They’ll typically cost $5.90 a year to run and will last for up to 8 years. Their sticker price is steeper at $5 per bulb but this is easily offset considering their lower running costs and longer life expectancy. Economics aside, there is a lesser known gotcha with CFL bulbs. CFLs typically contain 3-5mg of mercury vapour inside their glass body. When they do fail and get thrown out, they usually end up in landfill where in theory the mercury can contaminate the environment.

Enter stage left the humble 13w LED light bulb (which is as bright as a 75w incandescent or 20w CFL light bulb). As the numbers in table 1 show they’re easily the most economic lighting option. EECA estimate their running costs at just $3.80 per year - a fraction of their incandescent siblings. They’ll also on average last for over 10 years. While LED lightbulbs used to command a stiff price premium which saw them remaining the preserve of early adopters, the latest generation LED bulbs from players such as Philips have plummeted in price and a 13w bulb can be had for just a shade under $20. Considering they run on the smell of an oily rag and last for over a decade, their sticker price is isn’t all that bad. There’s no mercury either.

So is all this fuss about more efficient lightbulbs really a big deal? If you value the environment or are losing sleep over power bills, they’re a real no brainer.

According to The Climate Group, generating energy for lighting accounts for nearly 6% of global CO2 emissions. So choosing a more efficient lightbulb is an easy way to make a difference.

This hasn’t escaped local councils either.  LED street lighting has already been trialled by New Plymouth District Council, who are also said to be considering plans for a further roll-out of LED lighting to all existing street lights. Auckland is also planning to install 40,000 LED lights over the next two years.

While environmentally and economically savvy councils are reaping the benefits of going to LED lighting, New Zealand’s consumer uptake still doesn’t match that seen internationally and worse still, our government has yet to phase-out incandescent bulbs. 

According to, Philips, LED bulbs accounted for just 25% of their total lighting sales in New Zealand during 2013.

As impressive as this sounds, that also means that a whopping 75% of all lighting sold are of the less efficient varieties. Unsurprisingly, New Zealand lags behind Singapore ( where LED bulb sales made up 34% of Philips lighting sales), or Korea (whose LED bulbs were 30%) or even Australia (who are still marginally ahead at 27%).

Much of the growth in Asia has been the result of both education and a push for LED lighting in China and Japan by their respective governments. Both countries have also committed to phasing-out incandescent bulbs which is one of the drivers stimulating demand for LED lighting.  

So why has clean and supposedly green NZ not followed in their footsteps? As shown in Table 1, The numbers speak volumes about the inefficiency of old school bulbs and you don’t need to be a rocket scientists to see how much more efficient LED lighting can be. Surely getting rid of incandescent bulbs should be a win-win for our Government?  

We may lag behind our Asian and Aussie neighbours, but it isn’t all bad news for the humble LED light bulb. Between September 2013 and September 2014, New Zealand sales of LED bulbs grew six-fold.

The big driver of this growth in NZ has been a steady reduction in the cost of LED light bulbs. Perhaps there is also a need for greater education around the real costs of owning and using LED lights over their incandescent counterparts?

Table 1. The Numbers

Lighting Blurb Explained

Incandescent: A type of light bulb first patented in 1879. Incandescent bulbs work by passing an electric current over a metal filament which emits heat and glows.

CFL: Compact Florescent light bulbs work in much the same way as a florescent strip light. The inside of the bulb is coated with a phosphorescent finish and the bulb is filled with neon or Xenon gas which cases the phosphorescent coating to glow when an electrical charge is passed through the Gas.

LED: Light Emitting Diode: An LED bulb produces light when electrons move around within a semiconductor layer. The semiconductor has both positively charged and a negatively charged components. The positive component has "holes" (openings for electrons), while the negative layer has free electrons in it. When electricity is applied to the semiconductor, the electrons flow from the negative to the positive layer. Electrons emit light as they flow into the positively charged holes.

Watts: The amount of energy required to produce light. The higher the wattage number, the more electricity is consumed to output light

Lumens: The brightness of a lightbulb. More lumens equals a brighter light output.