Banning the bulb

South Africa finds itself out of step with major countries—including China—internationally that are banning the energy-sucking light bulb in a bid to promote energy efficiency.

Although the energy-inefficient incandescent light bulb adds at least 10% to our annual energy bills, about R2,8-billion a year, South Africa charges a 15% import tariff on energy-efficient CFL (compact flourescent lamp) light bulbs, even though we do not manufacture incandescent light bulbs locally.

Banning the bulb could reduce South Africa’s energy requirements by 800MW at a time when the country is running on low reserves of power, facing sharp cost increases and likely to face power shortages until at least 2010. The capital cost of producing 800MW of energy is about R5,6-billion, says Eskom’s Andrew Etzinger.

Australia is set to halt the use of old bulbs by 2009, while the United Kingdom is looking to phase out incandescent lights completely by 2012, the Guardian reports. China, meanwhile, will announce its formal programme to phase out old light bulbs at the United Nations climate change conference in Bali in December.

Eskom has been involved in an aggressive give-away programme to encourage the switch to CFLs. It has handed out more than six million CFLs to low-income households using funds from its demand-side management programme. But the department of minerals and energy says that there are no plans at policy or legislative level to ban old bulbs and encourage the conversion to CFLs.

An incandescent light bulb costs about R4 at leading retailer Pick ‘n Pay. It sells CFLs for about R18. The manufacture of CFLs in South Africa is set to begin later this year or early next year when Philips opens an assembly plant.

CFLs are five to six times more expensive than an ordinary light bulb, but they save up to 80% more energy and last much longer. Any CFL purchased pays for itself in the first six to eight months, says Philips marketing manager Chris Liebenberg. What is more, he says, one CFL can last up to three years, meaning that a consumer’s initial financial outlay is more than returned in the long term.

Philips South Africa sources its CFLs from China and Poland. And despite issues around labour costs, the company intends to establish a local CFL manufacturing plant by the end of the year or early next year, says Liebenberg. This plant will supply South Africa and the rest of the continent.

Sandile Tyatya, chief director for clean energy at the department, says that should local production capacity for CFLs be established, the department will look at ways to promote their use.

Tyatya says the competitive pricing of incandescent bulbs is one of the chief reasons that there has been no move to ban them or phase out their use.

Furthermore, the department cannot ascertain, without the assurance of a local supplier whether the number of CFLs in South Africa could meet the demand.

The Energy Development Corporation, through the Central Energy Fund (CEF), is “aggressively pursuing” the possibility of a CFL manufacturing plant, based, if not in South Africa, then in the SADC region, says EDC general manager Manny Singh.

Although not confirmed, it is possible that the CEF will be investing in the Philips plant, but neither party would confirm this or any more details on the development.

Singh concurs with Tyatya on the price of CFLs. He says that the technical arguments on CFL cost efficiency are lost on “your ordinary mom and dad” and that greater awareness is needed about how CFLs save money in the long term.

Singh says the cost of manufacturing CFLs is another impediment to the slow uptake of this technology in the country. He points out that manufacturing CFLs is very labour intensive and in countries such as China and Poland, two major suppliers of CFLs, labour costs are more competitive.

This is why establishing a plant in the SADC region is a possibility, as prohibitive labour costs might be sidestepped. The CEF will complete its feasibility study on the matter at the end of the month. But it seems that cutting the 15% import duty currently placed on CFLs could go a long way to slashing the price of units.

Barry Bredenkamp, of the CEF, says that if local manufacturing can begin, CFL prices should come down as import duty and shipping costs will no longer form part of the pricing structure. “Initially we will be assembling the components imported from factories abroad,” says Liebenberg of the Philips project. “The idea is to run the assembly plant for 12 to 14 months and once labour and skills are established, we are going to look to full-blown production.”

Once the plant is established the company aims to supply the South African market, as well as the rest of Africa, the European Union, South America and the southern United States, says Liebenberg. The global trend to phase out the use of ordinary incandescent bulbs is likely to see Philips halt its production of the bulbs within the next five years, he says.

Liebenberg says that greater awareness of the benefits of using CFLs does need to be created. Concern has been raised regarding the mercury that CFLs release into the atmosphere.

“CFLs are very recyclable,” says Singh, although to date South Africa has only five places where hazardous materials can be disposed of.

Osram, another of South Africa’s large light bulb providers, is also looking to begin producing CFLs locally. The company’s managing director, Grahame Boyle, says feasibility studies are taking place and the outcome will be known shortly.

Boyle says that a ban of incandescent bulbs or general lighting service lamps would be one of the best ways to ensure that there is increased uptake of CFLs. He says that a structured ban similar to the UK’s ban on all household bulbs above 60W would make “a huge impact without too much disruption to the end user or suppliers.”

“Government should introduce a surcharge on incandescent lamps and remove duties from compact fluorescent lamps to bring prices closer together,” Boyle says.

A bold move

The plug will be pulled on nearly all conventional light bulbs after supermarkets and energy suppliers agreed to phase incandescent bulbs out gradually from next year, the government said yesterday.

The initiative, announced by Britain’s environment secretary Hilary Benn in Bournemouth, is expected to save five million tons of carbon dioxide a year and be completed by 2012.

The old light bulbs are rapidly being replaced by low-energy bulbs, which cost more to buy but last up to 12 times as long and use nearly 80% less electricity.

But the government’s voluntary initiative was criticised by environmental groups and other political parties, which argued that it was weak compared with initiatives in other countries. Australia has banned conventional bulbs beyond 2009.

Yesterday many stores said they were in favour. Currys has agreed to stop selling the bulbs by the end of this year, Habitat by 2009, Woolworths, the Co-op, Asda, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s by 2010, and Tesco by 2011. Only Somerfield has declined to give a date for a complete phase-out.

Greenpeace director John Sauven said: “The government needs to go further and introduce tough mandatory efficiency standards rather than relying on weak voluntary initiatives.

“For every year of delay in getting rid of these bulbs, five million tons of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere unnecessarily.”

Opposition parties urged the government to go further. “New standards should also seek to phase out stand-by.

“Instead the European Union has just announced an anti-dumping tariff on imports of energy-saving bulbs from China, which will make them more expensive,” said Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems’s environmental spokesman.—John Vidal, Â

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