The Battle of the Bulbs: A very British conflict

Incandescent is the only word to describe the furore over energy-saving illumination. David Randall sheds light on the row over how we get switched on

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At around a quarter past four this afternoon, just at official lighting-up time, some of Britain's 500 million light bulbs will be turned on in the daily ritual that, deservedly, normally draws not the slightest spark of interest or comment. Today, however, is likely to be different. Thanks to shops starting to withdraw from sale old-style 100-watt bulbs ahead of a looming Europe-wide ban, Britain's domestic lighting traditionalists have belatedly realised that the forces of Brussels and eco-progressivism are in the process of doing away with the light they have read and lived by all their lives.

The bulbs are incandescent, and so, too, are their users. Worried, too. Living- room conservatives are looking up at the trusty old Osram burning brightly in the lampshade above their heads, and wondering for how much longer they can rely on its flicker-free illumination.

And so, a resistance movement is under way. Panic buying has cleared shelves, supplies of the soon-to-be-illicit bulbs are being offered on eBay, samizdat messages of protest passed around websites, and warnings of hideous effects on our health, and even telecommunications, issued.

The spirit of 1940 is being invoked. The forces of eco-scepticism, anti-Europeanism, and those who oppose the Nanny State mustered. And the cry has gone out from the pages of the 'Daily Mail', 'Daily Express' and 'The Daily Telegraph' that this is Lighting Correctness Gone Mad.

The eco-friendly have responded, and the result is a passionate rivalry that, while it may not shed much light on lighting, has certainly done a lot to illuminate some of our current preoccupations and neuroses. You could call it, were the outcome not so hopelessly, bureaucratically, and legally inevitable, the Battle of the Bulbs.

On one side, at least until a newer, more efficient technology makes it redundant, is the officially approved low-energy compact fluorescent light bulb. On the other is the old tungsten-filamented incandescent bulb, around now for some 100 years, a refinement of the one that Edison (or Joseph Swan, or Warren de la Rue, or Heinrich Göbel, or Henry Woodward – take your pick) invented in the 19th century.

For something so richly deserving of being taken for granted, the old-style light bulb has always had a certain knack for controversy. It ought to be a model of domestic humility – like the kettle, or the egg whisk, for instance – yet somehow has, in its inanimate way, often shown an instinct for publicity worthy of the most desperate starlet.

Even before it went into mass production, it had caused more than its fair share of fuss, with, over the years, no fewer than 22 different people claiming to have invented it. There was the lawsuit between America's Thomas Edison and Britain's Joseph Swan; widespread fears in the early days that spontaneous electrocution could occur at any time, or the light so bright that reading by it could cause blindness; constant rumours that the manufacturers (who for many years formed one of the more notorious cartels) had invented an everlasting bulb but kept it hidden in the vaults; the sense, especially in upper-class British circles, that electric light was "insufferably vulgar" (even in 1931 only 32 per cent of British homes had it); and claim and counter-claim over which was the longest-lived bulb in the world. And today, if you visit websites such as bulbcollector.com, you can see many of these old battles being re-fought with a vigour that is positively disturbing.

Once the filament had been sorted out – at first carbonised cotton, then paper, bamboo, before tungsten was finally settled upon – the electric light bulb was so much better than the dim and delicate gas mantles that a mere baby's breath could disintegrate. It was, for a large home, cheaper than gas – by 1883, the price of bulbs came down from its original 25 shillings (£1.25p) to five shillings (25p) – was bright, reliable, and came on instantly at the flick of a switch.

But it was also, we started to learn when energy consumption became An Issue, rather than an ambition, greedy. And so, as eco-concerns grew, alternatives began to be developed, such as the low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs which, although more expensive, consume up to 80 per cent less electricity than old-style lights.

Pioneers of green awareness and cost-consciousness began to adopt it, but not at a rate that matched official worries over energy consumption. And so, beginning with Cuba, governments started to promote it as a replacement for the incandescent light. Three years ago, Brazil and Venezuela started to phase theirs out, and other countries, including Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and the US, have followed suit. The situation in Britain, following action by the European Union, is this: on 1 January, shops began phasing out the 100-watt bulb, ahead of a ban on their sale by September. Next to go are the 60-watt bulbs next January, and incandescent bulbs will be all gone by 2012.

These matters would, you might imagine, be worth barely a page lead in Filament Monthly, but stories expressing disquiet began to appear in the nationals. The Mail, which, in February 2007, invited readers to apply for a special "Low Energy Light Bulbs" offer, soon decided that the things were a Bad Lot. The paper reported that fluorescent bulbs aggravated skins conditions, eczema, and lupus, and, because of their cost, "targeted the elderly". Other papers joined in.

Then, last week, as the effect of British shops withdrawing 100-watt bulbs hit home, the dam burst. The Mail's front page on Wednesday read: "Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing the shelves of the last supplies. End of light as we know it."

The rush by lighting conservatives to stock up was reported, and by Thursday the Mail was encouraging the British Domestic Lighting Resistance Movement with a reader offer rather different to the one they had promoted only two years before.

"In response to unprecedented public demand", read a front-page promotion, "FIVE FREE LIGHT BULBS FOR EVERY READER". You had to collect 12 tokens, and send £1.63 to cover post and packing, but they were 100-watt pearl incandescent bulbs, and they were coming to Britain!

Behind all this were some familiar themes – a reluctance to bow to European Union orders, a certain eco-scepticism, a dislike of the minutiae of one's life being decreed by officials. There were some unfamiliar themes, too. The newfangled lights "it emerged last night", wrote the Mail, were "incompatible with millions of lamps and sockets", "did not work with dimmer switches and security timers", "can't cope with freezing conditions when used outdoors", and, worst of all for an aspirational readership, were "unsuitable for chandeliers".

By now the internet was humming as supporters of the rival bulbs gave full vent to their feelings. Postings on a BBC website were typical.

Chris Lewis of Fareham asked: "What will happen to sufferers from diseases like lupus who are made ill by the new form of bulbs?" and Guy Binstead of Midhurst asked: "Did you know that if you switch an energy-efficient bulb off and on again in less than an hour it uses as much energy as leaving it on for an hour?"

Others complained that "it takes four times as much energy to make these energy-saving light bulbs", that their lack of instant full light when turned on means that people tend to leave them on all the time, and that the mercury content means they are, if not a health hazard, certainly bothersome to properly dispose of. And one woman claimed her reaction to the light emitted by compact fluorescent bulbs was so extreme she could not enter a shop, doctor's surgery or any building lit by them.

The response in some quarters was hardly more measured.

A few of the more sanctimonious greenies seemed to think that a right to personal choice does not apply where matters of energy saving are concerned, and that the incommoding of a few light-sensitives was a price worth paying.

What, then, is the truth? Compact fluorescents are more energy efficient, but considerably more expensive, although they can last up to 10 times longer than old-style bulbs.

Their adoption would, say Friends of the Earth, cut UK energy consumption by 2 per cent. They do flicker, but at a rate of 50 times a second – far too rapid for the human eye to detect. The real problem is their mercury content, requiring any used or broken bulb to be disposed of as if hazardous waste.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that, while incandescent bulbs are energy hogs, their compulsory replacement might have better waited for the advent of LED lights. These, while expensive at present, are even more efficient, are free of mercury and flicker, and can be used with dimmers.

But at least this weekend we know the answer to one question. How many Britons does it take to change a light bulb? An awful lot.

Electricity by numbers

£13m spent each week in the UK on electrical consumables, including bulbs.

£2.4bn spent by UK citizens annually on lighting their homes – 10 to 15 per cent of average electricity bills.

£3 per bulb per year can be saved by those using energy-saving bulbs. Replacing all bulbs in an average home would save £50 per year.

3m tons of CO2 emissions could be saved each year in Britain as a result of introducing a ban on incandescent bulbs. These now account for 80 per cent of all bulbs used in the UK.

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