Energy efficiency

LED Lights Tempt Us to Use More, Not Less, Energy


Light Bulb Idea

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.

NEXT: Veronique de Rugy: Why Israel Kirzner Should Win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

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  1. You may find that the IEA’s concern focuses more on high wattage cooking and heating than LED lighting, because the high quantum efficiency of LED’s translates into blinding brightness in sizes much larger than 10 watts-

    1. If you weren’t so busy making fun of deaf people for needing hearing aids, Dr Seitz of Harvard University, and talked to some economists, you might learn that when lighting becomes cheaper, people become less parsimonious about how much lighting they turn on and when

  2. Gasp!

    It’s almost like people have their own demand curves for how much energy they are willing to consume!

    Oh well, I am sure the New Environmental Man will come when a sufficient number children get the right ‘science’ curriculum jammed down their throats in their state operated schools.

    1. It’s kinda funny how dumb scientists can be when it comes to stuff they can’t measure.

      1. You’re right, but in this case the idiots aren’t scientists. They are the sort of policy wonks who gravitate towards worthless organizations like the IPCC.

        1. Point taken. Policy wonks are the dumbest of all – and the most dangerous.

      2. But you can measure it. If you know how to do differential equations, you can calculate these things very precisely. With a product with a really long and studied demand curve like electricity, anyone who had passed graduate level econometrics should have been able to see this coming and calculate pretty precisely just how much effect it would have.

        1. Maybe. I was referring to human nature – the quantification of which has bedeviled the dismal science since they started trying to quantify it about 100 years ago.

      3. It’s kinda funny how dumb scientists can be when it comes to stuff they can’t measure.

        We banned the bulb and made more vintage lighting more trendy;


    2. And it’s not like this hasn’t been seen with increased fuel economy and fucking hybrids.

      “I’m getting 40 mpg, so I can afford to drive 400 miles a week.”

      “Im getting 10 mpg, so I’m only gonna drive 50 miles a week.”

  3. Turn off the lights when you leave the room! /Dad

  4. 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.

    Haha, BULLSHIT.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. I’ve yet to see a fluorescent bulb last over 1000 hours. I’ve also yet to see a LED fail… ever, even on some of my oldest electronic devices. So I’m willing to believe the 100,000 hours on that one.

      1. I’ve seen plenty of LEDs fail, particularly power and HDD LEDs on HP z400s and z800s. That’s probably a quality of assembly/manufacture thing as much as anything, though.

      2. I’ve got plenty of CFLs with over 10000 hours.

        I think they’re like a lot of computer stuff. If they don’t fail early, and don’t get broke, 10K is easy. Pretty much an exponential arrival on failures.

        Just like real (not IRS) hard drives.

  5. it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.

    “According to my model, my hypothesis is correct.”

  6. Bitch slapped by the invisible hand; keep your eyes on supply, and he hits you with demand.

    1. I’m stealing that.

    2. This sounds to me almost as if the guys are saying that as the price of something falls people will use more of it. Like, if you make air conditioners and heat pumps cheaper to operate, people will run the thermostat down or up a couple of degrees and use just as much electricity to stay more comfortable. I’m sure that’s not the case and I can’t imagine that any properly trained economist would adopt such a dynamic model of behavior – static analysis, “all other things being held constant”, is so much easier to model. Isn’t that right, Mr. Krugman?

      1. It doesn’t take much thought to figure this out. But they don’t’ care. This wasn’t about saving energy. It was about making the bulb manufacturers more money and fucking with people by controlling them and making their lives worse because we can.

        1. Don’t forget the FEELZ, John.

          It’s Bootleggers and Baptists.

  7. This should surprise no one who has anything beyond a basic understanding of economics. People make decisions based on the marginal value versus the marginal cost of something. That is a complicated way of saying that if you make something cheaper per unit, people will use more of it. Make each unit of energy more efficient such that you get more light from each unit, people will respond by using more energy since it is a better deal.

    Since most people are outright or borderline economic illiterates, this post no doubt comes as a shock to them.

    1. This analysis ignores the fact that many people never reach the point where marginal value equals marginal cost and simply consume the amount of energy necessary to achieve a certain outcome. (This is certainly true for me).

      Introducing increased energy efficiency will reduce consumption and expense for such people. I would bet that a significant percentage of first world households, if not a majority, are like this.

      1. Since nearly everyone in the first world has power and pays their electric bill, I don’t think so. Electricity while affordable to most is not like salt. Most people still make some efforts to limit its use by turning lights off at night and such. Make it such that doing that doesn’t save you very much money and they will stop doing that.

        You are doing the analysis backwards. Using electricity doesn’t’ take the effort. Saving it does. So the more efficient you make things, the less value there is to making the effort necessary to reduce your consumption so the less people will do it.

        1. I don’t know…the reason that I turn my lights off when I go to bed is not that I don’t want to pay to run them, it’s that I want my house to be dark so I can sleep.

          The reason I close my refrigerator door is because I want my fridge to stay cold, not because I don’t want to pay for it.

          If energy were free I would still turn my lights off and close my refrigerator door. It may not be as extreme as salt, but I still believe that for most people in the first world energy is generally mostly price inelastic.

          1. Those are some of your decisions. but not all of them. Why don’t’ you leave your porch light on all night for security? Why are you conscientious and remember to shut your lights off when you go to work? Why don’t you add more lighting around your deck? Those are the decisions that are made differently depending on how much it costs to run a light bulb. Do that over the entire country and you wind up with a pretty big effect.

            1. I don’t always do those things. I turn lights on when I want it to be light and I turn them off when I want it to be dark. I would bet that most people are like me.

              Sure, there’s going to be some effect, but it’s legitimately debatable whether the increased consumption of light (or other goods that use energy) will totally offset the decreased consumption of energy due to efficiency.

              1. It is debatable sure. It depends on how the demand curve for the product actually works. But that is the point. These things often have the opposite effect intended and are not always what they are sold to be.

              2. I really don’t see anything of substance here to debate: Demand curves are neither horizontal nor vertical. The issue is one of magnitudes.

                Or am I missing some subtlety here?

              3. Diminishing marginal utility- how does it work?

              4. it’s legitimately debatable whether the increased consumption of light (or other goods that use energy) will totally offset the decreased consumption of energy due to efficiency

                Wouldn’t the fact it’s even debatable question whether a ban on other bulbs is/was necessary?

    2. Funny thing is that once people understand that making something cheaper results in people buying more of it, and making something expensive results in people buying less of it, getting people to apply that logic to employers buying labor (minimum wage) is nearly impossible. I have no idea why.

      1. Stop being so obtuse, sarc. Everyone has a right to some amount of other peoples’ property.

      2. People have a right to a job that pays well enough to support their chosen quality of life. I mean, how do expect that single Mom to support her four school-aged kids with a minimum wage job? How do you expect the 20-something art major to support his cocaine and international travel habits on a minimum wage job? Don’t even get me started on paid leave…

    3. I have to agree with Thom on this one. If lighting becomes more efficient people will certainly use more of it, but that doesn’t mean they will use enough more of it to overcome the cost savings, because each extra unit of light used probably has marginally less value to them. The most likely outcome is that they will use more light and less energy, but still more energy than the TOP.MEN. predicted they would use.

  8. Since I haven’t seen it linked in any of the articles or comments yet…

    Jevons paradox

  9. I used to leave all of my light on. Then I got a Rainforest Eagle smart meter gateway, and saw how bad it was. I switched to LEDs all over the house. Total upfront cost, about $500. My electric bill went from +/- $350 a month to about $90 a month.

    I still leave all of my lights on, but I’m using 75% less energy.


    1. Why do you leave all the lights on? Is that boogeyman back?

      1. Yes. The boogeyman of laziness.

    2. So over 75% of your electric bill was for lighting? That’s a bit abnormal. Maybe even grounds for a search warrant.

      1. You notice he didn’t mention the wavelength of LEDs he switched to…

        Just sayin’

        1. Them grow lights are a bitch.

      2. I live in a Mediterranean climate. I have neither heat nor air conditioning, and all of my appliances are energy star.

        I have I lot of square footage with high ceilings. My base lighting load in the evening was 2.5 kilowatts.

    3. Why’d you switch the whole house over? Is a $5 LED reading light that fits in your pocket or a lighted reading device too convenient?

      1. He lives in Manhattan. The lights keep the roaches and rats in the walls and off everything else.

      2. I switched over every bulb that was 60 watts or higher.

  10. The lighting usage is going to go up regardless as people in other countries get wealthier. As the US got wealthier we started using ridiculous amounts of lighting even with horribly inefficient incandescents, so I don’t think the new tech is going to be the cause of increased lighting. At least LED technology will make the energy usage smaller than it would have been otherwise.

    1. You can think that sure. If you don’t understand marginal decision making or think that people already use the maximum amount of light they can and could not use anymore if the marginal price went down.

      Since that is not true, then yes electricity use has and will continue to go up over this.

      1. Not quite John. Just because lighting use goes up as lighting cost goes down, it does not follow that energy use will go up as lighting costs go down. There’s no guarantee that people will use enough additional lighting to overcome the energy savings.

    2. I’d say people in those developing countries aren’t going to go to LEDs first anyways because the less efficient incandescents are cheaper. So really, LED will only reduce energy consumption in the 1st world.

  11. This is stupid. Shellenberger and Nordhaus strain to find something bad about something that will have positive effects on humanity.

    Who cares if demand goes up? That’s a good thing! More people living more comfortable lives in more places is awesome. Driving down the costs of commodities people need and want is one of the most important achievements of capitalism.

    And of course this “saves” energy. Massive deployment of led lights into new markets instead of incandescent or phlorescent lighting will cause less future consumption of energy.

    1. What is stupid is begging the question like your entire post does. There is nothing to say that dictating something, even if it is an efficiency is necessarily a good thing.

      1. I’m surprised by your negative reaction. What question am I begging? I’m just saying that I think the new tech is great and an improvement for mankind.

        I didn’t say anything about mandates or dictates, which of course I oppose. I didn’t carefully read the quote of their article to the end, in which they say pretty much the same thing I said. So that’s my bad.

        Who cares if more energy is consumed because people are living better lives?

        1. You’re begging the question as to how exactly forcing people to buy a different light bulb is a moral good.

          Not one is questioning the technology, but they are questioning the reasoning given for a legal requirement and whether the benefits match the same pitch.

          And as is common with statists, they were wrong. And as is common with authority lovers such as yourself, the fact we were sold this on a lie doesn’t matter; it’s all about the intentions.

          Ends justify the means. Principals, not principles.

          We get it – your idol, state power, can do no wrong. Cause of the right people and TOP Men.

    2. i don’t think you could expect to see LEDs in new markets before you see incandescents so the idea that developing markets’ energy consumption will overshadow any gains this technology presents is probably understated.

      Best case, in the long run, it will leave people in the 1st world with a little bit of extra money to spend on other things, which take energy to manufacture, so the energy for lighting will just be transferred to manufacturing or some other service.

  12. “…”The Problem with Energy Efficiency, by Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in the New York Times.”

    It is not a problem. It is a problem being solved by technology. We just haven’t finished solving it.

    About a month ago I took the cussed fuckin’ fluorescents down in my garage and put up LEDs. I love ’em. The light is more than sufficient, a good color, and when I hit the switch they come on. I burn them exactly the same number of hours that I burned the fluorescents.

    The consumption of a product like light has a limit. Increased efficiency in the production of it will result in an increase in the consumption of resources up to the point where everyone reaches that limit. Further increases in efficiency will ultimately result in reductions in consumption of resources. We just haven’t reached that point yet.

    1. Obviously you aren’t familiar with the limitless ambition of Christmas decorators

      1. *headsmack*

      2. My electricity bill goes up in December. I also don’t care that it does.

      3. Even that is limited by the square footage of your property… or maybe the volume of your property up to the coded legal maximum structure height?

  13. Not changing my mind; my personal energy use will still be less when I’m done converting to LED’s for most of my lighting, which is a slow process because of the up-front cost, but I’m getting there. I use only incandescent bulbs in the meantime, though, because I hate fluorescent lighting of every kind.

    1. I’m doing pretty much the same thing. I stockpiled 60watt incandescents so I probably have years worth of those left.

      1. 100 watts here, boxes and boxes of them that were being dumped at low prices, or taken out to be thrown away by relatives being duped into “saving money” by buying compact fluorescents.

        1. I live in an apartment and most of the half-dozen or so permanent light fixtures have these weird covers on them that require a Phillips-head and about 15 minutes to get off and on. So, every time one of those burns out, I replace them with an LED. Most everything else I’m replacing from my incandescent stockpile.

          I have a mental note that, if I move out of here, I’m pulling all the LEDs before I go.

  14. FWIW, I personally find that I use more light but less energy as I switch to LED. I tend to put in brighter lights than I had before and leave them on longer, but not so much that they use more net watts.

  15. Another thing people are not mentioning here is that LEDs are not just a replacement for lighting. More efficiency also drives innovation. One thing I’ve always wanted are virtual shutters for windows (especially for sliding glass doors).

    1. My favourite aspect of that is how it affects development decisions.

  16. Great, just what we need, more light at night crowding out the stars.

    1. Come live by me. As log as the moon isn’t too bright, you can see the Milky Way (except for around Christmas, one of my neighbors thinks Clark Griswold’s Christmas decorating is a minimum standard to be attained).

      1. Oh and cheap LED lights make it easier and cheaper for said neighbor to go more overboard every year.

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