Reducing the Financial and Environmental Impact of Lighting with LEDs|
Article- March 2012 By Larson Electronics.com
Larson Electronics 36 WattLED Wall Pack Light
Energy efficiency and the beneficial impacts it has on our environment is much more involved than many may realize. While the current trend with “going green” has resulted in a much larger segment of the population becoming familiar with the straightforward benefits of energy efficiency, there are other more subtle, but every bit as meaningful benefits to be had as well.
By now most of us are well versed in how using less electricity means less pollution and lower electrical bills. When we reduce the overall amount of electricity we use, we reduce the amount of fossil fuels that must be burned to produce electricity, and thus we reduce the amount of pollutants introduced into the environment. But switching to improved technologies that rely on electrical power does more than simply reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn to produce power. Newer and more efficient technologies like LED lighting not only reduce electricity usage, but offer longer life and more environmentally friendly construction as well, both of which have positive environmental benefits.
Currently, to improve the efficiency of lighting we normally look to alternatives to the incandescent bulb. The most notable alternatives that offer significant improvements in efficiency are the fluorescent and HID lighting technologies most commonly found in commercial and industrial applications. With lighting alone accounting for up to 80% of the utility expenses in some industrial operations, it’s no wonder these incandescent alternatives are so popular. In the commercial and industrial sectors, lighting must also be powerful and easy to tailor to specific applications, which further adds to the allure of these alternative light sources. Much has been made of the improvements in efficiency that both HID and fluorescent lighting offer, but there are drawbacks that can sometimes negate some of the perceived environmental benefit associated with energy efficiency.
Both HID and fluorescent lighting rely on complex reactions which heat gases to produce light. To get the process started in these lights, mercury is used as a reactionary agent that is mixed with other metallic salts and vaporized by heated argon gas to produce light. The problem here is that mercury along with some other materials occasionally used in these lamps is highly toxic. As a result, special care must be taken when these lamps reach the end of their useful life in order to avoid introducing dangerous levels of mercury into the environment. While on a bulb to bulb scale the amount of mercury used could be considered negligible, when we consider the thousands upon thousands of HID and fluorescent lamps that are in use which must eventually be disposed of, it becomes clear that the possibility of mercury level increases in the environment is a real danger.
In addition to mercury, older fluorescent lamp ballasts contain PCB’s, and many HID bulbs contain lead in their socket assemblies, which only adds to the importance and cost of managing their disposal. Now, while we would all like to think that recycling efforts are 100% effective and that everyone is environmentally aware of the hazards these lighting technologies pose, this is not the reality. Recycling rates for fluorescent lamps used in business hover around 30%, while nationwide recycling averages that include both homes and business are barely 25% according to a 2006 NEMA report. The rates for recycling of CFLs is even lower, with barely 2% being recovered, most likely due to the fact that residential homeowners are the largest users of these lamps and tend to throw them out with normal household waste rather than allocate them for recycling.
At the present time, hazardous waste directly associated with lighting disposal has not been identified as a major contributor to toxin levels in the environment. However, with the recent enacting of new energy regulations and the continuing phase-out of the incandescent bulb, the number of HID and fluorescent fixtures in use has grown, with fluorescent lighting seeing a significant spike in production numbers. This increased production represents an increase in toxic materials that will eventually require disposal or recovery before it can enter the waste stream. If we consider that within the next 5 years many forms of incandescent lighting will no longer be in production, and that in their place alternatives such as HID and fluorescent lamps will be in use, and then also consider that for most large scale industries relamping takes place every 9-12 months, the potential for serious toxic material accumulation is significant.
In order to achieve improved efficiency without negating some of the environmental benefits through the introduction of increased levels of toxins into the waste stream, it will be necessary to not only improve recycling efforts, but also implement still other lighting alternatives. LED lighting currently holds the best potential for achieving the energy efficiency standards now mandated by the federal government without increasing the burden created by an increase in toxic wastes. Although there remains some skepticism as to whether or not LEDs can effectively fill the illumination roles currently held by HID and fluorescent technologies, real world applications are proving that not only do LEDs have the potential to do so, they are in many cases a superior alternative.
LEDs do not require any gases, metals, or toxic materials that are easily assimilated into the environment to produce light. Compact and highly efficient, LEDs can replace fluorescent and HID lighting in a wide array of commercial and industrial applications with little to no compromise in light quality and oftentimes even greater efficiency. LEDs provide even more benefit through improved operational life, which means the periods between scheduled mass relampings can be spaced out to a matter of years rather than months, which in turn further reduces the potential for increased levels of waste. With reduced energy requirements, less waste, and no notable levels of toxic substances that require additional processing, the costs of operating LEDs is far lower than that of other lighting technologies across the board. From the end user on up to the local population, LED reduce the impact of energy consumption and waste, thereby reducing costs for everyone, while providing an environmentally friendly footprint as well.
While LEDs may not currently be able to fill every lighting role, and many applications will be best suited served by other lighting technologies for some time to come, LED technology continues to advance at a pace that is quickly narrowing these gaps. When considering the efficiency and effectiveness of your next lighting installation, it could well be worth the effort to both you and the environment to give new LED lighting technology a serious look.