Blog Post

Will Solid State Lighting Lead to More Energy Use?

Not a lot of people in the greentech and environmental worlds talk about Jevon’s paradox. It’s a proposition that says if technology makes the consumption of a resource significantly more efficient, then more of the resource, not less, will be used. It was proposed after the coal-fired steam engine led to more coal usage in England, even though less coal was being used per engine. Well, according to researcher Jeff Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, who published a report in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics recently (and which was covered in this Economist article) the same thing could happen with next-generation solid state lighting.

Solid state lighting, which is lighting based on light emitting diodes (LEDs) — the LED wafer is a solid source compared to the filaments in incandescent bulbs or the gas in fluorescent bulbs — will one day take over as the dominant type of lighting technology. As described in this GigaOM Pro report, innovative startups are flocking to the space; investors are funding the lighting shift; and governments are banning the older bulb technology.

But Tsao’s report says the growth of solid state lighting, replacing incandescents and compact fluorescents, could increase the consumption of light by a factor of ten within two decades. According to a variety of assumptions the report makes, Tsao predicts that by 2030, if the price of electricity stayed the same, and solid state lights were three times more efficient than fluorescents, then the amount of lumens consumed by a person could rise by 10, and the amount of electricity used to deliver that light could double.

That’s not good news, but think of it this way: The current amount of lighting used in the world isn’t saturated, which means our desire and capacity for brighter lights, and particularly more lights outside at night, could theoretically expand dramatically. As the Economist explains: “In 1700 a typical Briton consumed 580 lumen-hours in the course of a year, from candles, wood and oil. Today, burning electric lights, he uses about 46 megalumen-hours—almost 100,000 times as much.”

The point is that when the technology jump is dramatic enough, even though it leads to efficiency, there’s an unknown amount of applications in solid state lighting that could emerge.

There are a few factors, however, that can negate Jevon’s paradox. One is that the technological innovation won’t be disruptive enough to increase the use of the resource. Another is that the resource is uniquely not price- and efficiency-sensitive, and the resource is for some reason saturated; for example, humans just don’t need more or brighter lights.

Finally, a strong policy can nip Jevon in the bud. Jevon only works for technology innovation, not policies. Strong energy-efficiency mandates and subsidies could support solid state lighting, but make sure that lighting-based electricity consumption doesn’t grow along side it. This is why I think people should start talking more about Jevon’s paradox and looking at what policies will be needed to avoid the situation detailed in this report.

For more research on solid state lighting check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Opportunities in Solid State Lighting

Image courtesy of Mike Deal aka ZoneDancer’s photostream.

10 Responses to “Will Solid State Lighting Lead to More Energy Use?”

  1. There is a study out showing that if all lights were converted today we could stop building power plants and take some off line. I agree with several comments above – if you replace a light bulb with the equivalent LED you will not typically add more. You do need to be very careful of what brand you buy currently. Many do not have proper heat sinking and poor controllers so they will burn out way before the LEDs themselves. See how long they are warrantied for – not just estimated hours. There are health benefits to LED lighting too. Much easier on the eyes, no hum, no UV rays.

  2. I totaly don’t get the point. Why should we be concwrned about it?

    Is our ultimate goal to consume as little energy as we can or is it to live comfortable lives doong as little harm to evironment as possible? Is the energy saving an objective per se!?

    It’s either of the two: we NEED more light, so allowing us to have it for the same resurces is a good thing, or we don’t need more light so the paradox will not occur and we get the same amoint of light for less money and it’s a good thing. It’s a win-win, whatever happens. Why should anyone be concerned?

    It takes a very weird (though popular) kind of philosophy to assume that the goal for humanity is not to ‘waste'(i.e use) energy.
    We use the energy to fulfill our needs and to make progress means that we either can produce more energy cheaply and sustainably or do the same things we did before but more efficiently. The reason is that we can spend that ‘recovered’ energy to fulfil our other needs, which was previously not possible due to the lack of resources.

  3. I agree with the paradox in some cases but with light it isn’t as if we don’t have enough light because energy is too expensive. We don’t, for the most part, leave highways unlit because we can’t afford to light them. If a parking lot owner converts to LEDs I can’t imagine they would then install twice as many poles – they are motivated by the electricity savings not the opportunity to add additional light where a satisfactory level existed before.

    Since LEDs use 50-90% less electricity we would need to double or quadruple the amount of light we use as a society to “break even” on the energy savings. I don’t see that happening. In fact I see the opposite happening – as people adopt LED Lighting they will find that they are only lighting what they need to light. Without omni-directional lighting you tend to waste less to begin with.

    Daniel Henderson
    CEO, Relumination

  4. The article is flawed in a huge way and here is why.

    People converted coal to energy because the energy did work and they could convert the energy into profit. That is why more coal was used.

    In his shallow and probably intentionally misleading argument he fails to look at the reason WHY. My guess is he was funded by GE or big coal but then that was not disclosed either.

    This article just got relegated to the trashcan filled with other useless noise.

  5. In a way, I agree. I replaced Halogen bulbs with LED bulbs in one of my track lighting fixtures. Because the LEDs really don’t put out as much light, it takes several more bulbs and fixtures to get me the equivalent amount of light. But taking into account that I went with cheaper Chinese LED bulbs, rather than the outrageously expensive higher output bulbs may have some effect on the total amount of bulbs used. But when you look at the numbers, I replaced 6 25W Halogens with 10 4W LEDs, so the overall effect is still using less power. Really, there is only so much light I need.

    Now if we start talking about commercial or public properties, the use of lighting may be a bit different. For instance I have seen several new public works projects which now include lighted architectural features, that probably otherwise wouldn’t have been. In that case yes, because of the cheaper operating cost of the LED lighting, it is being put in places not previously considered.

  6. Ekechukwu Mbaachu

    I’m pretty certain that jevon’s paradox will not apply to solid state / plasma lighting technology for these reasons.

    It actually doesn’t matter how many lumen-hours of light are consumed per person the appropriate measure should be the whole-life cost per Kwhr of electrical energy input. The combination of photovoltaics and battery technology plus adoption at scale should make concerns about jevon’s paradox irrelevant.

    • Andrew B.

      I agree with Holly about light pollution! We live in an area where we can see the Milky Way at night, and I want to keep it that way. We have enough light already.

      During the day, I personally have a tremendous preference for natural light. That’s why our home has “solar tubes” and lots of double pane windows.

      And yes, we do use LED lights where it makes sense.

  7. “Jevon only works for technology innovation, not policies. Strong energy-efficiency mandates and subsidies could support solid state lighting, but make sure that lighting-based electricity consumption doesn’t grow along side it.”

    Actually, neither energy-efficiency mandates or subsidies will negate Jevon’s paradox. You need a tax to make energy more expensive. Energy-efficiency mandates can get rid of incandescent light-bulbs but it won’t limit the number of CFLs you can buy, or the number of hours you run them. The only way to reduce usage is to make electricity more expensive. If done along side improvements in technology you will get the same amount of lighting for the same price.