The Unholy Alliance between Philips and the Greens – A Guest Weblog by Joost van Kasteren and Henk Tennekes

Holland is a miniature kingdom in the Northwest corner of Europe. Latitude 52 degrees north: as far north as the town of Red Deer in Alberta, Canada, midway between Calgary and Edmonton. Consequently in wintertime, our days are short and our nights are long. Our kids have their breakfast in artificial light. It dawns when they hike to school; twilight starts when they come back. They do their homework in the warm light of incandescent bulbs. Like we did …. and our parents.

Not for long anymore. An unholy alliance (discovered by Elsevier journalist Syp Wynia – see footnote) between a large multinational company and a multinational environmental organization succeeded in their lobby to phase out, and ultimately by 2012 forbid, the sale of incandescent bulbs, because of their low watt-to-lumen efficiency – not  only in the Netherlands but in the whole of the European Union. The multinational company wanted to develop a new market for products with a high profit margin, and the environmental multinational wanted to impress the citizens of Europe with the imminent catastrophe caused by anthropogenic climate change. That would also be of benefit to its battered public image.

Philips, the company involved, started in 1891 with the mass production of Edison lamps, at its home base, Eindhoven, Netherlands. There existed no international court of justice at the time, so they could infringe on US patent law with impunity. In the past 120 years it has expanded continuously, to become the multinational electronics giant it is today. Because nostalgia seldom agrees with the aims of private enterprise, Philips started lobbying to phase out the very product on which its original success is based. They started this campaign around the turn of the century, ten years ago.

Their line of thought is clear: banning incandescent bulbs creates an interesting market for new kinds of home lighting, such as “energy savers” (CFL’s, compact fluorescent lamps) and LED’s (light emitting diodes). The mark-up on these new products is substantially higher than that on old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. The rapid expansion of the lighting industry in China makes the profit margin on ordinary bulbs from factories in Europe smaller yet.  

At ACTION, a major discounter
Incandescents: $0.46 and up
CFL’s: 7 watts for $1.99
Softone CFL’s: 7 watts for $3.70
At ALBERT HEIN, our largest supermarket
Incandescents: $0.59 and up
Halogens, house label: $1.99 and up
Halogens, Philips: $3.99 and up
CFL’s, house label: $5.30 and up
CFL’s, Philips: $7.65 and up
Softone CFL’s, Philips: 12 watts for $10.45
LED’s, Philips: 5 watts for $21.99
Dimmable LED’s, Philips: 6 watts for $33.30

Energy savers (CFL’s) were introduced on the market in 1980, but they never succeeded in gaining wide acceptance from consumers. Notwithstanding their long life expectancy and reduced power consumption, most of us find their light unnatural, too “cold” as it were. On top of that, the early types were far too heavy. They also were slow starters and often did not fit in standard armatures. These days, warmer CFL’s are on the market, but they are twice as expensive as the earlier types. Multiple government campaigns, aimed at promoting the idea that energy savers contribute to the well-intentioned goal of reducing the energy consumption of households, failed to convince citizens.

The spectre of catastrophic climate change offered a new opportunity for the strategists and marketing specialists at Philips headquarters. They changed their marketing concept and jumped on the Global Warming band wagon. From that moment on, energy-saving bulbs could be put on the market as icons of responsibility toward climate change. This would give Philips a head start in the CFL end LED business. The competition would be left far behind by aggressive use of European patent law. That strategy fitted like a glove with that of the environmental movement. For them, ordinary light bulbs had become the ultimate symbol of energy waste and excessive CO2 emissions. Seeing the opportunity, Greenpeace immediately made a forward pass with the ball thrown by Philips’ pitchers. The incandescent bulb would serve as an ideal vehicle for ramming Global Warming down people’s throats. No abstract discussions about CO2-emissions any more: a ban on bulbs would suffice. Not unlike the misguided banning of DDT in the name of environmentalism, which leads to the loss of countless lives due to malaria.

Come to think of it, banning incandescent bulbs makes only marginal sense. The energy savings of CFL’s are small. They are somewhat more efficient when you take into account only the number of lumens per watt of electrical power, but they cost a lot more to produce. Also, their real life expectancy often is much less than the 7,000 hours promised in the ads. And don’t forget that they contain a few milligrams of mercury, which contaminates the environment when they are not disposed of properly. Most of them aren’t – a scary thought.

Is it fair to judge light bulbs on the efficiency with which they convert watts into lumens? The combined lobby from Big Business and Big Environment has attempted to convince us that old-fashioned bulbs waste a lot of energy. They ignore the inconvenient truth that the efficiency of common light bulbs is in fact a full 100%. All the “waste heat” helps to heat the house. In wintertime, when days are short and cold, every contribution to home heating is welcome. In summertime the days are long and there is hardly any need for artificial lights. The incandescent bulb may give only a little bit of light, but it also produces a lot of useful heating.  

There is yet another problem: the quality of the light produced by CFL’s and LED’s. Their light is unnatural; it is unsuitable for an atmosphere of coziness in living rooms, not to mention bedrooms. The directors of art museums in Europe worry a lot about this. The famous landscape paintings of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Ruysdael lose their brilliance in the harsh lights that have to replace incandescent bulbs. For the next few years they can switch to high-intensity halogen bulbs, like we did in our homes. But those will be banned by 2016. In the struggle for attention (and for profit) no holds are barred. Everything is fair in war – love is not involved here.

In 2006, Dutch legislators caved in under the combined lobbying pressure by Philips and Greenpeace. A parliamentary majority in The Hague embraced the idea of banning incandescent bulbs and ordered the Dutch Environment Minister, Jacqueline Cramer, to lobby for an extension of the ban to all states in the European Union. That task proved simple enough. Top politicians in Europe, Germany’s Angela Merkel up front, deeply impressed by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, were only too eager to project an image of strength and will power concerning imagined threats to the planet. ”Save the Earth, ban the bulb” was an effective campaign strategy.

To make a long story short, it took less than one year to issue a binding European Union Edict ordering the phasing out of incandescent bulbs, starting with a ban on bulbs of 100 watts and more effective March 1, 2009, and leading to a complete ban of all incandescent lighting on September 1, 2012. The spin doctors at Philips headquarters have got it made. And if this scam backfires on them in consumer protests all over Europe, they can cover their backsides by claiming that politicians and the green movement are responsible, not they. 

Backfire it will. There exist no decent alternatives to incandescent light.  None.

Footnote

Elsevier, the Dutch weekly, is the local equivalent of TIME magazine. On August 8, 2009 it ran a  revealing cover story by Syp Wynia, entitled “How war was declared against the incandescent bulb.” Other sources of information include an article by James Kanter in the New York Times of August 31, 2009 and many others, easily found by googling “incandescent bulbs” and “banned.”

Henk Tennekes is an aeronautical engineer. From 1965 to 1977 he was a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Penn State. He is co-author of A First Course in Turbulence (MIT Press, 1972 – still in print) and author of The Simple Science of Flight, recently (2009) released in a revised and expanded edition.  Joost van Kasteren is a senior writer on technology and science in Holland. He covers energy, housing, water management, agriculture, food technology, innovation, science policy, and related issues.

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