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US Report Says LEDs Most Sustainable Form of Light
For those who have actually looked up the word “sustainability,” you know that it means, in environmental science terms, to not be harmful to the environment. It is one of the high-visibility catch words in the green movement.

How Sustainable is an LED Light System?

As a comparison, let’s look at bits of a research report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the U.K.-based N14 Energy Limited, from 2012. It is the first public report to compare the resources necessary for the complete life cycle of incandescent, compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs, from their manufacture, through use, to death. The report answers the questions:
  • Which type of bulb is the most sustainable?
  • Is it the actual manufacture of the lighting system that uses the most energy or is it something else?
  • Which is best for our Earth?
Researchers looked at a number of ways in which the bulbs could have had an environmental impact, such as the energy and natural resources needed to manufacture, transport, operate and dispose of the light bulbs.

“Fifteen different impacts were considered when evaluating environmental footprints, including the potential to increase global warming, use land formerly available to wildlife, generate waste and pollute water, soil and air. The report examines the complete life cycles of three kinds of light bulbs: light-emitting diodes, also called LEDs, compact fluorescents, or CFLs, and traditional incandescent light bulbs.”

The report says that the greatest environmental impact of lights is in the energy they consume when they’re turned on. That power consumption is similar between LEDs and CFLs. What the research team found is that the bigger difference between those two bulbs’ overall environmental performance is largely determined by the energy and resources needed to make them.

The team compared bulbs that were representative of those typically used in normal environments: a 60 watt incandescent that uses 60 watts to produce its light, an LED that uses 12.5 watts to produce a similar amount of light, and the CFL that consumes 15 watts to make light. Using a database to calculate the resources needed to produce the various components of the three light bulbs, they found that all light is not created equally.

The results were not a surprise—incandescents have a larger energy consumption footprint than either CFLs or LEDs. LEDs lead as the overall energy-saving champs in all but one of the categories studied.

LEDs did use more energy in one category than did the CFLs. LEDs need a heat sink, a ribbed piece of aluminum, that dissipates the bulb’s heat. The energy required to mine the aluminum and manufacture the heat sink upped the energy footprint of the LEDs. However, the CFLs toxic chemical internal mix that requires even household CFLs to be properly disposed remains a concern.

Overall, the report gives the LEDs of today a slight advantage in total energy consumption over any other lighting source studied. The text continues by predicting that with better design and as technology and manufacturing methods improve, the LEDs will take a firm lead as making the smallest environmental impact.

The report writers continue to praise LEDs’ efficiency, saying that improved manufacturing methods, research and development in the next five years will continue to widen the energy footprint gap between CFLs and LEDs, with LEDs jumping away in overall sustainability areas. By 2017, LEDs will have in the neighborhood of 50 per cent less impact than current LEDs and 70 per cent less impact than current CFLs. That is great news for both the environment and consumers.

With the data mentioned, LED light systems seem to be the most sustainable lighting systems around that use the current technology. And LEDs look to be the lighting systems of the future as they continue to develop their environmentally shrinking footprint to manufacture and dispose.