Cost of lighting heading skywards

Monday 15th Aug 2011 by theWeather Club

Light is one of humanities great markers. See a light piercing an otherwise dark landscape and there is a fair chance that one of us is responsible. Where you find people, you will find light, and light equals energy. It means that the generation of this light has long been an area targeted in the push to reduce our energy use, with traditional light bulbs producing as much heat as light therefore wasting 50% of the energy they consume.  

On September 1st the manufacture of basic 60-watt version of these (incandescent) light bulbs will cease in Europe and householders will have to rely on low-energy Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) instead. CFLs have always been controversial because of light output issues (especially with the early models), and high prices. But as September 1st approaches the controversy has intensified because the cost of CFL bulbs is rising rapidly.  

Manufacturers have blamed recent price rises on the growing cost of the raw materials required to make the bulbs, and say there are further increases to come.  CFLs contain small quantities of expensive rare earth elements. Makers say that growing demand for the substances, particularly in China where they come from, has forced prices upwards. One major wholesaler in north London, said the price charged by their supplier for an 11-watt CFL has risen from £1.39 in June to £1.67 today, an increase of 20%.

The sales director of Sylvania, one of Europe's largest bulb-makers, explained that China's near-monopoly over the key raw materials was behind the price increases.  He wrote: “At the end of last year, the Chinese government decided to reduce the export of rare earth elements to protect their fast-diminishing reserves. This has resulted in limited availability of phosphors in 2011 and a steep increase in price.” And according to another giant bulb manufacturer, things are not going to get better any time soon. Duncan Chamberlain, the trade commercial manager of Philips, wrote: “Philips Lighting expects that further price increases may be necessary during the course of 2011.”

Consumers were encouraged to accept the new-style bulbs with a Government scheme, which has now ended, which saw them sold for as little as 10p at supermarkets and DIY stores, thanks to subsidies provided by energy companies. The Energy Saving Trust's website states that the price of their recommended light bulb starts from between £1 and £2.

However, chances are that it will take a great deal of shoe leather, or ‘mouse clicking’ for consumers to find leading brands CFLs at the Energy Saving Trust's recommended prices. The road to reduced energy use was always going to be a rocky one, and it seems that we are a few weeks away from another uncomfortable bump.