Green transition and energy sustainability are burning topics in a world witnessing increasing energy instability, climate change, and pollution. The growing world population isn’t improving the situation; it takes massive energy for 10 billion people to stay warm, eat food, see during the night, do business, watch TV, and scroll endlessly on social media. Searching for the solution to the problem, many are focusing on improving and creating new tech for generating energy – power plants, solar panels, hydropower, windmills, geothermal heat pumps, etc. The spotlight is pointed at grandiose innovation, while the silent heroes of energy saving and efficiency remain behind the scenes. We rarely pay much attention to what has become ubiquitous in our environment and often forget its profound impact on our everyday life. LED technology is one of those silent heroes, supporting our attempts to achieve greater energy security, decrease our carbon footprint, and gain more with less. But why are LEDs so much better than their counterparts?
The cheapest and most effective way to reduce the negative impacts of our energy consumption on the environment is to consume less of it. Energy efficiency is one of the key tools for mitigating climate change, energy insecurity, and associated problems. And LED tech is the leader in energy efficiency. Compared to incandescent bulbs, LED bulbs use 75% less energy. Several US states recognized this great advantage, offering subsidies and incentive programs for LED lights. According to the information by the Department of Energy, it is expected that the majority of lighting installations in the US will use LED technology by 2035, potentially saving 569 TWh annually. This equals to the annual energy output of more than 92 1,000 MW power plants and millions of tonnes of fossil fuels. Businesses, industrial facilities, and other large-scale structures benefit the most from opting for LED, as they are the greatest consumers of electric energy.
On average, LED bulbs last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs, providing more than 25,000 hours of light. Fluorescent lights are a bit better, offering between 7,000 and 15,000 hours of light. If the bulbs are on 10 hours a day, an average LED bulb can serve you for almost seven years, compared to 3 years for an average fluorescent bulb and three months for an incandescent bulb. That number can be more significant, considering that a number of LED producers offer products that can provide 50,000, and even 100,000 hours of light, supposedly serving you for more than 27 years. However, this information is a bit misleading, as such longevity is hard to achieve outside the product testing lab.
The quality of production is the primary quality that affects the longevity of LED bulbs. Still, there are also other variables that affect their performance – how the lights are used (how long are they on daily, are they exposed to mechanical damage), temperature around them, the strength of the electric current, quality of the bulb socket, and electric installations. Because of this, in practice, the life expectancy of a LED bulb usually sits somewhere around five years. Although this isn’t as good as the producers claim, it still provides better results on average compared to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.
Due to their longevity and energy efficiency, LEDs produce less waste, require fewer resources, and provide a greater return on investment. This quality is especially advantageous for businesses and industrial facilities, as the benefits of LED tech tend to go up with the scale.
Note: LED bulbs don’t break down suddenly but lose their luminescence gradually, giving off less and less light with use. This mechanism can somewhat prolong their lifespan, however, with suboptimal results.
Smaller carbon footprint
Carbon footprint is a measure that includes total greenhouse gas emissions of various entities – individuals, communities, businesses, services, products, events, and locations, described through its carbon dioxide equivalent. Greenhouse gas emissions are among the most impactful factors in terms of climate change, especially considering they are often accompanied by all other kinds of other pollutants. Due to their fantastic energy efficiency and longevity, LED bulbs have a considerably smaller carbon footprint compared to other types of lighting. One LED bulb produces about 450 lbs. of CO2, compared to 1050 lbs. for CFLs and 4500 lbs. for incandescent bulbs.
According to the information given by the Environmental Protection Agency, a single healthcare center reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 7,4 million pounds annually within a year by switching to LEDs. If such projects would be implemented at a larger scale, the carbon footprint reduction would be staggering. Considering that lighting makes up almost 6% of total CO2 emissions globally, LEDs play a pivotal role in the decarbonization of the sector.
Energy efficiency and longevity are very important, but what about waste management? What happens to LED bulbs once they finish serving their purpose?
You can put them with your regular household waste, as none of the materials used for their manufacturing are toxic, so there is no risk of heavy metal pollution, as opposed to their counterparts – CFLs. CFLs contain mercury and metallic salts that are highly toxic, and as such create a great problem in waste management. CFLs that end up rotting in landfills significantly contribute to soil pollution, leaching all those nasty elements into the ground with every rain. Because of that, CFLs shouldn’t be disposed of in regular household waste – you can take them to Home Depot or another home improvement store where they take in such materials.
You can also do the same with your used LED bulbs and ensure that they get to a recycling unit, where the valuable glass and metals (95% of which are recyclable) will be separated, processed, and repurposed. The remaining parts will most likely go to other processing facilities or landfills.
Perspectives for food production
An enormous amount of fossil fuels needed for agricultural machinery and the manufacture of pesticides and fertilizers, massive methane emissions from the livestock industry, and increasing land use make agriculture one of the industries with the greatest impact on climate change and the environment. 38% of terrestrial land is agricultural land, created at the expense of wild habitats. Aside from giving a home to numerous animal, plant, and microbe species, these wild habitats offered a wide range of invaluable ecological services that are crucial to maintaining natural processes necessary for life to thrive.
The growing world population requires more food, and the fertile, available land area is becoming more limited. Pollution, erosion, soil degradation, invasive species, diseases, and unstable weather conditions are creating an increasingly unstable food supply. This all sounds pretty grim, but LED technology offers a solution to this massive and far-reaching problem. Growing plants indoors under LED grow lights can provide a source of fresh veggies and greens all year long. In terms of land use, a couple of productive large-scale indoor farms could replace thousands of acres of land. Another great advantage of these systems is that they offer a greater level of control over crop health and development. Environmental conditions like humidity levels, temperature, and light exposure are constant, enabling the plants to develop without much stress. Pests and diseases are easier to prevent since every plant can be inspected before being added to the indoor space, so the input of pesticides is significantly lower too.
LED allows us to kill two birds with one stone; we can secure our food supply by producing healthy, fresh, pesticide residue-free food all year long, and reducing land use of agriculture. By rewilding the areas drained by constant exploitation of the soil, we can help restore the depleted land and boost natural cycles that increase carbon sequestration.
LED is a powerful and efficient technological solution in many ways, but there are cases where it has a substantial negative impact. Artificial light pollution is a serious environmental issue that disrupts the life cycles of many plant and animal species. As such, it contributes to the declining biodiversity loss.
LEDs offer more light for less energy compared to their counterparts, so they are often chosen for public lighting. They provide better and stronger illumination, making neighborhoods and roads safer. However, they also create a deadly trap for numerous insects, birds, bats, and other wildlife. The massive spreading of the lighting infrastructure and the strong, bright illumination of LEDs significantly increased the mortality of these creatures.
However, light pollution doesn’t only affect the life around us – it also affects us. Several studies conducted over the last decade have shown severe negative effects of artificial lighting exposure after sunset. It leads to a lower quality of sleep, and since sleep is crucial for recuperation and a wide variety of essential bodily functions, it indirectly disrupts our health and well-being. The negative effects of LED exposure during the night can be reduced by using bulbs that don’t emit light in the blue light specter, since those wavelengths signal wakefulness the strongest.
The pros outweigh the cons
Although the negative effects of LED tech are undeniable, it doesn’t mean we should give up on substituting old, less efficient types of lighting with it. There isn’t a perfect technology, and adverse effects remind us that we need to be humble and careful about how we use it and where. In the end, LED technology is lighting up millions of homes, hospitals, roads, businesses, and industrial facilities. It enables us to grow plants in indoor environments, making us less dependent on seasonal changes, weather conditions, and natural soil quality. As such, LED tech doesn’t only help us create a more stable energy system but can also increase food security. Its subtle, but powerful impact has immense repercussions on our everyday life and offers aid to our attempts to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
- LED Lighting. The Department of Energy.
- Case Study: Energy Reduction through Lighting Improvement. Environmental Protection Agency.