Modest Proposal: Keep the halogens, but tax them

I hereby announce that I will not run for political office. I can't. I'm about to advocate a tax, which is something any politician with a survival instinct is supposed to avoid like the plague.

Even worse, in the eyes of some: my tax would be a 'green' tax. Yup, a save-the-planet, kumbaya, we're all in this together, jack-up-the-price intervention on free market economics.

But it would spare something precious that otherwise soon faces a certain demise: the halogen light bulb, which faces extinction by European mandate.

For a quick review: halogens are a type of incandescent bulb that are slightly more energy efficient than conventional incandescents, but that are far less efficient than LEDs (light-emitting diode) or CFL (compact fluorescent) lamps. The European Commission decided back in 2009 to ban their sale starting in September 2016, under a planned phase-out of energy hogging (read, CO2-belching) bulbs that has already included the exile of many other incandescents. The idea is that LEDs and CFLs, with their 80 per cent and greater reduction in electricity consumption (it's closer to 90 per cent for LEDs these days), will help Europe meet its mandatory carbon reduction targets.

Now, the conventional lighting industry wants to postpone the halogen ban until 2020. Modern, LED companies  say that's ludicrous, and see no reason for any change to a ban for which the industry will have had seven years to prepare. The issue could come to a head on April 17, when the EC meets to consider whether it will stick to its long-planed 2016 guns, or whether it will grant a reprieve to 2018 or even to 2020, as industry group LightingEurope has asked. The EC might even vote on it that day.

To simplify, the choices at present break down into two: 1) ban when originally planned, or 2) grant a stay of execution.

A third way

Which is where my 'third way' comes in: tax the halogens, and put the money toward 'green' objectives.

The extra dosh could help fund more eco-friendly low-carbon electricity generation, such as renewables or nuclear, for instance. I'm personally a fan of developing a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors that depart from the old-fashioned ways of today's nuclear power. There are a half dozen or so potentially safer, cheaper and more useful approaches to nukes, and while China is putting significant money into these, most Western countries are not.

I'm writing this opinion column for an end-user focused lighting website, so forgive me the little digression in the previous paragraph. But please do keep in mind that as obsessed as we are here at Lux with lighting efficiency, we are not oblivious to the big picture that includes supply of energy as well as demand.

Back on the demand track: the tax funds could help develop more efficient LED bulbs. LEDs might be 90 per cent less energy-hungry than incandescents, but they themselves could improve. Correct me if I'm wrong, but they convert less than half of the electricity that feeds them into light. That's one reason why they require reliable heat sinks that dissipate the potentially dangerous temperatures that build up in the grinding process of converting electrons into photons.

Even the recently heralded graphene LED bulb will only make a small improvement in efficiency according to various reports. Surely, we can do better.

The heart of the matter

Or, getting to the heart of why I'd like to continue to have a halogen option: there is nothing like halogens in the LED or CFL world for creating that warm glow that those of us who grew up with incandescents – ie, all of us – expect from our lighting.

LED manufacturers will dispute that. They'll claim that that's an old argument, that they have warmed up their wares from the early days of icy blue light to light that is now the warm equal of the fiery hue of incandescents. They even stamp their LED packaging with a '2700 Kelvin' label – a 'colour warmth' metric that statistically equates to the old cozy incandescents.

But like beauty, warm light is in the eye of the beholder. And I've been beholding the difference since the Christmas holiday buying season. On a whim, I had purchased a simple halogen table lamp from British retailer John Lewis for £65 (about $100 at the time). The lamp's stylish and tactile 'touch control' allows me to tap it into three different brightness settings. At the two lowest – which are the two I use most - the visual 'warmth' radiates like fireplace embers, at least compared to any LED or CFL bulb in my house.

Having it both ways

Let me be clear: I'm all for LEDs. I've been buying them for a few years now. I like them for saving energy, I hope they last the 20 years that manufacturers claim, and yes, they are getting 'warmer'. I very much look forward to continued progress in that area. It's safe to say that I already willingly use LEDs more than I do halogens or any other lingering incandescent lamp in my house.

But there are a few places where I still want the glow that, to my eye, LED does not provide, claims of '2700K' nothwithstanding. And I'm willing to pay a little extra – a tax - to have the option. Goodness knows I'm paying a premium for LED bulbs (yes, prices are coming down rapidly, but even at, say, £8 for an item that was once around £1, we're all still adjusting); a little green surcharge on my halogens would be okay by comparison.

Accidental halogen hailer

As I scribble these words, I realise I might be surprising some readers, colleagues, acquaintances and sources. In fact, I'm surprising myself. Had I have written this column in mid-December – as I almost did – I'd have dashed off a diatribe about how foolish it would be to give energy-guzzling halogens one more breath of life than they were already due.

Then I switched on my accidental halogen lamp after Christmas.

And something else happened that made me think twice about banishing these halogen things: On that same whimsical family gift shopping excursion to John Lewis, I had also came home with an £80 (about $125 at the time) all-singing, all-dancing, all app-controllable LED  smart bulb, from Silicon Valley vendor LIFX. Not the bog standard expensive LED, but the really really really expensive LED with all the intelligent, smartphone-connected bells and whistles. 

Yes: one bare bulb, eighty pounds sterling, one hundred and twenty-five dollars. 'Ah, but it's Christmas, and I will buy my family the future of lighting,' I said to myself.

When the excitement of rum pudding and tinsel wore off, I came to my senses. I had overspent. Something had to go back. I decided it was the future. The highly intelligent light bulb could wait until prices tumbled. The time-honoured glow of light would stay (after all, humankind has been lighting homes with fire since cave days, and incandescents are, essentially, the fire of a burning filament).

Give me another hit

In fact, on my return trip to the retailer, not only did I receive a full refund for my LIFX future, but I found myself drawn back to the halogen touch lamps on display. So much so that I purchased another.

It was a modern day consumer epiphany. I had to admit: if I was impressed enough to welcome two relics of the past into my home while rescheduling the future, then could I put my hand on my heart and say 'to hell with halogens'? The answer was 'no.'

That's not to say we should ignore their environmental consequences. Thus, the tax. Consider halogens as cigarettes or alcohol or marijuana (in, say, Colorado) and let people enjoy them for a little levy. I would even propose limiting the numbers per individual or per household, although I have no suggestion on how to police that.

Some of the other arguments in favour of keeping halogens alive veer towards specious. The conventional lighting industry, for instance, has noted that banning halogens would confuse the consumer. With due respect, that is a disingenuous remark; the industry largely has itself to blame for confusing consumers with misleading and inconsistent language regarding the 'eco' nature of various bulb types (old-timer Osram recently recognised this and decided to stop referring to halogens as 'eco').

Halogen in Wonderland

And in a chequered case that gets curiouser and curiouser, LightingEurope - which represents venerable vendors like Philips and Osram - contends that the LEDs that the industry implores us to buy now are actually not quite ready to replace halogens, and won't be until 2020.

They have made the questionable assertion that consumers would face a shortage of bulbs if the EC sticks with a 2016 halogen ban.

I think consumers would basically manage just fine should the 2016 hammer fall. But they would have less choice. As the conventional industry rightfully asserts, LEDs don't yet do everything that halogens do. They don't reliably dim, for instance.

They also don't give off that glow the way halogens do, although, ironically, the conventional industry seems loath to admit that. 

The case for a halogen extension has a whiff of Wonderland, but it also includes nuggets of merit. It would be more convincing if the industry were to come around to a third way, and agree to a tax.

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Photo is from Stanimir G. Stoev via Shutterstock

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The views epxressed in this column are those of the author's, not of Lux per se. He was not smoking anything when he wrote it.  Feel free to weigh in below with your opinions.