The Inevitability of Change and Resistance to Energy Efficient Lighting

Change is inevitable. It is one of the only constants in life, and as the saying goes, nothing ever stays the same. Despite the truth behind this, most societies and cultures have historically demonstrated a resistance to change. Perhaps nowhere is this currently more evident than in global efforts to promote a change to energy efficiency awareness and the new technologies intended to speed the rate of this change and increase its maximum potential. From alternative energy sources to how we currently use energy, resistance is being encountered on almost every front, at almost every level, from those within the very governing bodies passing efficiency regulations to the everyday citizen who feels the effects most acutely. And of all this, perhaps nowhere is resistance more visible than in the efforts to change the way we produce illumination.


In the last decade, governments around the world have been working towards energy efficiency standards that can be applied comprehensively on a global level. These standards have been the source of great debate and contention as well as the new technologies these regulations have brought to the fore. While the regulations themselves have been the main source of contention, the technologies that have been given life by their existence have become something of a focus for public resistance. The reasons for this are widely varied, but have their roots in explanations that border on both the psychological and the practical.

Of all the technologies affected by new energy standards, lighting is one of the most obvious due to its acute effect on everyone from the leaders of the free world on down to the average citizen working to make a living. Current lighting technology in the form of the incandescent light bulb has had over 120 years to become cemented within the public psych as the defacto “light bulb”, and familiarity and simplicity has turned the incandescent into the lighting standard by which all other forms are judged. The incandescent light bulb is cheap to purchase, easy to operate, easy to replace, and it works. With little else to challenge it, the public had little reason to view the incandescent light bulb as being in need of improvement.

Due to the publics’ well established familiarity with the incandescent bulb, the psychological perception of the light bulb is also playing a role in how new lighting technologies are judged. For example, who would have thought that the lowly light bulb would become the poster child for the preservation of liberty and freedom of choice? Yet this is precisely what has happened as politicians have realized the publics’ natural resistance to change, this time in the form of new energy efficient lighting technologies, and utilized it to polarize their constituents and solicit support for their “old time values” platforms. More subtly, the publics’ perception of the incandescent light bulb is also tied to such human traits as vanity, pleasure, comfort, and security.  In the early days of the incandescent bulb for example, it was subject to suspicion and resistance as ladies found the light too garish and worried how it would affect their appearance. Others worried what the newfangled light bulb would do to their health; after all, all that hocus pocus called electricity blazing forth in a bath of light couldn’t be good for the body. Others were certain that the light from the incandescent bulb would eventually lead to blindness!

And yet, after a couple decades the reliance on flame based light sources waned and the popularity of the incandescent bulb steadily grew until it was not only accepted, but the standard form of lighting in almost every home. This scenario is once again playing out, almost as an exact repeat performance if you will, as the incandescent light bulb is slowly phased out in favor of newer and more efficient lighting technologies. This resistance has probably been best exemplified so far by the rampant rumors and exaggerations that accompanied the appearance of the CFL. With the introduction of the compact fluorescent bulb came a lot of hype and promotion that touted it as the best and most efficient lighting available and that it would save millions of dollars in energy costs and reduce carbon footprints every year. The problem however, was that the CFL was not ready for prime time, with color temperatures too different from the tried and true incandescent and design problems that led to noisy operation and interference with sensitive electronics. Other trailing issues included the fact they contain mercury and emit electromagnetic radiation.

It wasn’t long after the introduction of the CFL that resistance became highly vocal, and rumor and even paranoia became commonplace. It wasn’t unusual to find people complaining of headaches and health issues which they blamed on electromagnetic radiation from CFL’s, (Never mind that homes are filled with electronics which produce higher EM levels), and worrying what all that mercury would do to them if they ever broke a CFL bulb (CFL bulbs contain as little as 1mg of mercury, and introduce about 70% less mercury over their lifespan compared to an incandescent).


Despite the distortions and misunderstandings regarding CFL’s, there were some real issues such as their greatly reduced lifespan when cycled on and off frequently and poor compatibility with dimmers. Other problems included poor cold weather performance and higher color temperatures which resulted in CFL’s producing light that was far too “cold” in appearance. With resistance to change already an issue, these problems only served to further complicate efforts to promote CFL’s as a viable lighting alternative. Because of all these issues, designers and manufacturers quickly rushed to improve the CFL and address its shortcomings. For the most part these efforts were successful, but the damage was done.

The problem here is simple in that in order for CFL’s to have gained a wider range of acceptance, they would have had to first overcome the public’s natural resistance to change. In order to do this, several things must be taken into consideration.

First and foremost, change must be perceived as beneficial and an improvement over the current status. Since CFL’s were at their introduction plagued by design and operating issues, they failed in this regard. CFL’s would have fared better had the technology been refined further and matured before introduction.

Secondly, to have change accepted, it needs to be perceived as being simple and easy to understand. Although most people could easily understand that a CFL is nothing more than a compact fluorescent light, the problems with color temperatures, dimming, and proper disposal to manage the mercury they contain made them far less than simple. Typically, with an incandescent bulb the choice is mainly between wattages, and when the bulb is burned it is simply thrown away; with CFL’s, compatibility with dimmers, color temperature, and proper recycling must be taken into account.

Finally, if the general public is expected to embrace a new technology, it must be affordable. Unfortunately, although CFL’s do indeed cost less to operate over the course of their operational lives and provide long term returns on investment, their initial cost is far higher than a typical incandescent bulbs’. Although a portion of the public does think in terms of the overall bigger picture, a larger portion is more easily swayed by initial outlays. A larger initial cost is simply felt much more acutely than a slow and steady return in savings.


At this point in time, the CFL is far behind where experts had projected it would be in terms of acceptance and implementation. So much so, that competing technologies have had time to mature and perhaps even make the CFL obsolete before it was ever truly established. LED’s for instance are just such a maturing technology and offer even greater efficiency and savings in energy costs. With their compact size, durable design, and low energy requirements, LED lights are quickly becoming established in a whole host of applications that were once the domain of incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs. Once again however, there is resistance to the change LEDs represent, and a similar pattern to that of the CFL has emerged in the form of premature introduction, higher costs, and increased complexity.

Regardless of how we may feel about them, new lighting technologies are going to be the standard in the near future. New energy regulations and the phase out of the incandescent bulb have made this a certainty. How easily the transition to these new and more efficient lighting technologies takes place however is in large part dependent upon the developers and manufacturers of these new luminaries. Before a new technology can be introduced as a replacement for the old, it must be kept as simple as possible, be as easy or easier to operate, and it must be effectively conveyed to the end consumer how the benefits are realized, be it reduced costs or improved reliability and effectiveness. To date, mistakes such as releasing new lighting technologies before they have been matured enough and not establishing clear standards that would allow better understanding of how these technologies improve upon the old continue to be made.

Until these problems are addressed and resolved, the general public will be hard pressed to accept these new technologies without reservation, and efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce the impact energy production has on the environment will continue to progress slowly and haphazardly.


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