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Greenpeace LED switching proposal – lightbulb moment or environmental blunder?

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Greenpeace has recently launched a report that shows a shift to Light Emitting Diode (LED) light bulbs in homes could reduce peak electricity demand in the winter by five per cent (2.7 GW). Sounds great, but is it?

Incandescent lamps (or light bulbs by their more common moniker) have been all but phased-out now and replaced with more energy efficient Compact Fluorescent Lamps instead.

Now, Greenpeace is advocating a switch to Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting instead in order to further cut power demand.

It’s a great idea until you examine some of the broader issues that it raises.

For a start, it would more than likely necessitate a huge re-fit of lighting appliances to accommodate the LED lamps. Thrown away, these old appliances would add to the annual quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment or WEEE that we produce – something that’s already considered to be one of the fastest growing wastestreams in the EU – and making replacements would only consume more raw materials and energy.

Then there are the toxic heavy metals contained in LEDs that present potential health and pollution problems. A study published in late 2010 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that LEDs contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially dangerous substances.

It doesn’t mean that a wholesale switch to LED lighting is a bad idea, just that the wider environmental consequences have to be part of the discussion too. Like I pointed out in this blog, sustainability isn’t about absolutes.

The smartest thing we could be doing, which could also achieve steep cuts in power use and associated emissions, is educating people in order to stimulate behavioural change: people still leave lights on in unoccupied rooms and buildings; photocopiers and computers get left on overnight in offices; and people still tumble dry their laundry on days when it could be hanging out to dry outside. If we could get people to change their wasteful ways, we wouldn’t need to rely so much on technology ‘fixes’.

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