Earlier this week, three researchers—Isamu Akasaki from Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan, Hiroshi Amano from Nagoya University, Japan and Shuji Nakamura from the University of California, Santa Barbara—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of how to make a blue LED light. Combining the blue with green and red diodes enables the production of the first white LED lights. The Nobel Prize committee observed that highly energy efficient white LED lights emit 300 lumens per watt, compared to 16 for incandescent and 70 for fluorescent bulbs. The committee then noted:
As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth's resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.
Frances Saunders, president of Britain's Institute of Physics, added, "With 20 percent of the world's electricity used for lighting, it's been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.
But will LEDs really save resources? Not so fast, cautions an op-ed, "The Problem with Energy Efficiency, by Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in the New York Times. The two trace the history of lighting over course of the Industrial Revolution from town "gas" lamps, through whale oil and kerosene, to electric light bulbs. As the cost of lighting declined by a factor of 3,000, people demanded more of it. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus explain:
There is no reason to think that the trend lines for demand for LED lighting will be any different, especially as incomes rise and the desire for this cheaper technology takes hold in huge, emerging economies like China, India and Nigeria, where the sheer volume of the demand will be likely to trump the efficiency gains….
The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. They concluded that energy savings associated with new, more energy efficient technologies were likely to result in significant "rebounds," or increases, in energy consumption. This means that very significant percentages of energy savings will be lost to increased energy consumption.
The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally. Recent estimates and case studies have suggested that in many energy-intensive sectors of developing economies, energy-saving technologies may backfire, meaning that increased energy consumption associated with lower energy costs because of higher efficiency may in fact result in higher energy consumption than there would have been without those technologies.
That's not a bad thing. Most people in the world, still struggling to achieve modern living standards, need to consume more energy, not less. Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world.
The whole op-ed is worth your time. In any case, hearty congratulations to professors Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura on their brilliant achievement.
For more background, see my article, "The Paradox of Energy Efficiency," where I explain how more efficient cars and appliances often lead to more energy consumption.