2014 means ‘lights out’ for incandescent bulbs in Canada.

Photo by NikonFilm35 | flickr.com

Photo by NikonFilm35 | flickr.com

January 1st rung in more than just a new year for Canadians – 2014 also marks the beginning of a phase out process for incandescent light bulbs in Canada.

The phase out of 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs came into effect New Year’s Day, with the ban of 40- and 60-watt bulbs starting in 2015.

The purpose of this ban, initiated in 2007 by the Conservative government, is to reduce energy inefficiencies created by incandescent bulbs (as about 70% of the energy is lost as heat rather than light) and encourage Canadians to switch to more efficient versions such as compact fluorescent (CFL) or LED bulbs. 

So what does this mean for Canadians?  It’s a ‘get them ‘till they’re gone!’ scenario for incandescent light bulbs already in stock within Canada, and for the most part, they are flying off the shelves.  Some suppliers, though, say that they may not even sell out until as late as March.

The decision to ‘ban’ this particular type of light bulb, especially in a place like Canada, of course, does not go without controversy.  In fact, Canadians barely appear to support the decision, and are left wondering why this bizarre rule was made in the first place.  While some are not looking forward to dishing out more money for CFLs (a few bucks) or LEDs (about $20), despite their dramatic price decrease over the past few years, some will go as far as to say that prohibiting the supply of incandescent bulbs to Canadians is going against our freedom and is a criminal act.  To throw the ‘freedom’ card into the mix is a little dramatic, if you ask me (it’s just a light bulb, folks!), but such a seemingly silly change on a federal level with this much media attention is greeted to be met with resistance.  Others believe that there are far more important environmental issues for Canadians to tackle, such as expansion of the oil sands and the nation-wide muzzling of scientists. Some are concerned about the potential health hazards stemming from use of CFLs, (this appears to be the top rebuttal against the ban), as these bulbs contain 5 mg of mercury (less than the quantity in a watch battery) that homeowners fear could lead to unsafe exposure levels if a bulb were to break. Mix in complaints about headaches, unsatisfactory light intensity, the inability to dim the lighting in one’s dining room (how dare you, Harper!), some more references to our freedom, and we’ve about covered Canadians’ reactions to the ban.

Opinions aside, consider this: you operate an average-sized, 9-storey office building just outside the city with some several hundred office spaces.  You decide, as part of an environmentally conscious Canadian business, to switch from 100% incandescent bulbs to all CFL or LED lights throughout the building, since you know that less energy will be ‘wasted’ as heat.  In the summertime, you find that yes, in fact, your overall consumption decreases.  Great!  But what about those bitter Canadian winters?  Wouldn’t that ‘wasted energy’ be beneficial for keeping the building warm? At the end of the day (er, year), does the complete light bulb overhaul really end up being more energy efficient in the end?  So the question becomes: Which option is ultimately more energy efficient – permitting incandescent bulbs to partially heat the building such that you have less of a need to crank up the heat during the winter, or using light bulbs that do not give off heat energy, but having to turn the thermostat up?  Paradoxically, people like Peter Blunden, a physics professor at the University of Manitoba, believes the latter to be true.

In this case, is a complete ban of incandescent bulbs really the answer?  Or should we use our bulbs seasonally, as we do with our tires and our wardrobes?  Using incandescent bulbs during the wintertime may reduce the amount of fossil fuels required to heat the office space (or whatever the source may be, depending on the region in question - note that the overall difference in impacts may also depend on the source of energy for each area). 

Personally, I’m curious as to how much of a difference would be measured in this office building (i.e., the quantitative difference in energy efficiency) versus a standard home versus a small 1- bedroom apartment.  I can imagine two potentially contradictory scenarios - either the difference in heat production would be more significant with each additional bulb (i.e., heating becomes less efficient for larger spaces), or perhaps smaller spaces, such as an important would be more sensitive to removal of heat-producing light bulbs, whereby a few incandescent light bulbs could make a substantial impact on the amount of additional heating required. 

What it likely comes down to is that light bulb usage should depend on factors such as climate, season, and building/room size, as opposed to a complete ban of incandescent bulbs.  Milder Canadian cities like Vancouver may not observe this phenomenon as much as brutally cold wintertime cities such as Winnipeg, but this again points towards the notion of recommended bulb uses depending on time of year and location.  It may seem more complicated than necessary to specify when and where to use incandescent versus CFL versus LED bulbs (LED bulbs were specifically designed for much warmer climates than Canada, FYI), but if you were to promote this theory based on money savings for consumers, I’m sure the number of complaints would dwindle, particularly compared to a full out ban on incandescent bulbs.

So, could the ban on incandescent bulbs contribute to increased greenhouse gases and thus the entire process of climate change?  In British Columbia, for instance, BC Hydro estimates a 45,000 tonne annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the ban – the equivalent of 10,000 additional cars on the road. 

Relating light bulb bans to global climate change may be a stretch, but such scenarios emphasize the importance of considering all potential consequences, even if they are unintended.

But for a country attempting to recover from ranking last place for environmental protection among wealthy nations – we have to at least pat Canada on the back for trying.