The science and controversy behind your lightbulbs


(gentle music) – You might have noticed that light bulbs have
gotten more complicated. Light bulb technology has
exploded in the past few years. There are incandescents,
fluorescents, LEDs, it’s a lot. New bulbs are more energy-efficient than they ever were before, and they’re even getting smarter. But now, all of a sudden,
some of the people who helped drive that
innovation see trouble ahead. – [Noah] America’s setting
itself up, believe it or not, to become the dumping ground of the world for all these inefficient incandescents. – The story starts here, with the classic incandescent light bulb. Thomas Edison got a patent for
it in the U.S. back in 1880, and the fundamentals
haven’t changed much since. The bulb works by passing
an electric current through a thin filament,
which heats it up. Once the material gets hot
enough, it starts to glow. It’s a product that
revolutionized our homes, but there’s a problem. Incandescent bulbs waste 90%
of their energy producing heat, and that makes them pretty inefficient. They cost more on our electricity bills, and we have to burn more
fossil fuels to power them. That got people worrying
during the 1973 oil crisis, when oil got really expensive, and it has people worried now about how these inefficient lights contribute to climate change, which is why, about a decade ago, the race for alternatives
really heated up. – Maybe we can go back to 2007. – That’s Noah Horowitz. He works on energy efficiency at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, and in 2007, he started
talking with industry about new options for light bulbs. – And Philips Lighting
took the leadership role and said, “Hey, we think there is “a better mouse trap out there. “We think we should be moving
to more efficient lighting.” Noah helped draft a bill
requiring common household bulbs to use 27% less energy by 2014, and succeed to 70% less by 2020. President George W.
Bush signed it into law, and pretty much overnight,
manufacturers had to get serious about new lighting technologies. – And once that transition occurs in 2020, we’re gonna save billions
of dollars per year on our energy bills, and prevent the emissions
of millions of tons of CO2, so the shift to more efficient lighting means we don’t need as many power plants, we’ve got less pollution, and people save a lot of money. – So this is where all those
new light bulb options come in. First up, the compact fluorescent, or CFL. They’ve been in development
since the 1970s. A CFL is basically a tube filled with gas, with an electrical current
running through it. When I turn the lamp on, electrons in the current
bump into mercury atoms. The collision excites those atoms, creating ultraviolet radiation. When that gets absorbed by
the white phosphor coating on the inside of the tube, it fluoresces, or lights up. But, not everyone’s a fan of that color. See the difference between
a CFL and an incandescent? Those are actually differences in the wavelengths of
light that each produce. What you’re seeing is a spectrum of light that a typical incandescent puts out. You get pretty much a
full rainbow of color. Here’s a more accurate graph. What’s notable is that it skews toward the warmer wavelengths, so the light typically
appears warmer in color. It also wastes a ton of energy here in the infrared, which we can’t see. A typical CFL looks way different. It puts out most of its
light in much narrower bands, and the strongest peaks
are at blue, green and red. It’s a much less complete spectrum, and because of that, it
doesn’t render color very well. Which, again, has its critics. – The light’s no good,
I always look orange. (audience laughs) – But we’ll get back
to him a little later. CFLs do represent progress. A 60 watt incandescent light bulb will give you up to 14
lumens per watt of power, a lumen being a measure of brightness. An equivalent CFL will get you way more, between 55 and 70 lumens per watt. But, the mercury inside is toxic waste, and they aren’t as efficient as the next technology to hit the scene. – [Noah] The LED light
bulbs are amazing products. They look and behave exactly like the old incandescents. – LED bulbs arrived on the
market in the early 2000’s, and technologically, they’re pretty much the best of all worlds. They can put out up to
100 lumens per watt. An LED is a light-emitting diode, a device with two layers, one that’s negatively charged, and another that’s positively charged. As an electrical current moves electrons from one side to another, they release energy in the form of light. The LED spectrum has a
nice, even mix of colors, it can get the closest to
resembling this, actual daylight. So the LEDs are the clear winner, and have actually helped propel a massive shift in home energy usage. In 2010, 68% of light bulbs installed in U.S. homes were incandescent. By 2016, that dropped to just 6%. Meanwhile, CFLs and LEDs really took off. That’s a big reason why
residential energy use has actually fallen since 2010, after rising for years. In short, the law worked. – [Noah] All these bulbs
are in the market now, and we’re supposed to
transition to those in 2020, and no longer have the incandescents. – That was the plan. Instead, this happened. – So I signed something
a couple of days ago that gives you the
right to continue to use the incandescent light. (crowd cheers) – To be clear, there was never going to be a ban on incandescent bulbs. What President Trump did was roll back those 2007 efficiency standards
that Noah helped to write. That 2020 deadline would have phased out most incandescents that
couldn’t evolve, and now? – It’s very disappointing
to see this sudden shift. The industry worked
behind these standards, they’ve developed LEDs, they
had 12 years to get ready, and now they’re saying, “Nope, let’s let the
market take care of it.” And they’ve worked side-by-side with the Trump administration to try and roll back these standards. That’s really bad behavior. – The Natural Resources Defense Council and more than a dozen states are suing to reinstate the standards. The Department of Energy argues the rollback will give
consumers more options, including sticking with
cheaper incandescent bulbs. It’s true that more efficient light bulbs still tend to be more expensive, and that’s a bigger problem
for low-income communities according to one study by Tony Reames, a researcher at the
University of Michigan. – And so we went out
and did store surveys, kinda like people do with
the food justice studies, where they look at the
price of fresh fruit, or access to fresh fruit in stores in different income level areas. – What they found were big disparities. Poor neighborhoods had
about half as much access to new, efficient bulbs as more affluent communities did. But also, we found in stores in poor areas that did have the LED bulbs, they were like twice the price that they were in the suburbs. – But here’s the thing, even though incandescents are cheaper, they waste energy and have
to be replaced more often, so in the long run, they hike
up people’s energy bills. Today, one in three Americans struggle to pay their energy bills, and the problem is even worse in many communities of color. So the people who need
the new bulbs the most are the ones stuck with the old ones. – And so if you’re already
on a strapped budget, then you’re probably gonna
get the cheapest bulb, which is then the least efficient bulb, and not the ideal bulb to
reduce your energy consumption, which is kinda like a perpetuating cycle of having high energy costs. – Still, with or without
the regulatory roll backs, more efficient bulbs
will stay on the market, and they’ll get cheaper
as more people adopt them. This isn’t the end of
innovation in lighting, it just isn’t the end of old
school incandescents either, which probably would have been a surprise to even Edison himself. According to his great-grandson, developing the incandescent was only supposed to be a pit stop. – [Man] You know, he had over 20 patents just on the light bulb, and that wasn’t just because
he was finished with it once it was done, but it was because he was constantly trying to improve. So, I think he’d be scratching his head, wondering what the DOE is
thinking at this point. – Hey everyone, thanks for watching. And if you’re curious what happens to your electronic waste
when you recycle them, check out this video over here.