A Brighter Shade of Green: The Environmental Advantages of LED Lighting
The 2007 passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) has had the effect of rapidly maturing the energy efficient lighting market. Driven by a desire to cut energy usage, the EISA has had a wider than anticipated impact by helping bring to market lighting solutions that are far friendlier to the environment than their predecessors. Nowhere is this more evident than the ongoing green revolution of LED lighting.
Whether you’re primarily looking for a green solution, or just consider it a nice advantage of the technology, you’re in for good news: the same features that make LEDs green also make them more affordable.
This is an area where LEDs really shine. LED lights are up to 80% more efficient than alternatives such as fluorescent or incandescent lights. Over the long lifespan of a single LED lamp, the energy savings add up significantly. This reduced energy consumption means that it requires far less fossil fuels to drive the same amount of lumens.
Reduced energy consumption is what LEDs are largely known for. But their environmental impact goes much further than this.
A Holistic Approach
To really get a feel for the potential change in environmental impact of LEDs, we need to look at their entire environmental footprint. This 2013 Department of Energy report uses four factors (transportation costs, bulk material production, packaging, and usage) to show the total environmental impact of LEDs in relation to incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen lights. The DOE report shows that LEDs have the smallest environmental impact by far. Even more importantly, assuming that LED innovations and improvements continue at their current pace, by the end of 2017 they should carry less than half of their 2013 impact.
This high-level approach shows that LEDs are the clear industry leader in environmentally-friendly lighting technologies. If you want a lighting solution that has the lowest possible carbon footprint, LEDs are the clear choice. But what happens when they’ve reached the end of their service life? Fluorescent tubes and CFLs are well-known for the regulatory requirements which govern their disposal. Do LED’s carry the same type of burden?
The short answer is no. LEDs currently have no regulation on their disposal, and can simply be dropped in the trash. However, this is one area where LED technology still has room to improve. While LEDs don’t contain mercury like fluorescent lamps, they do contain a range of metals that give some environmentalists pause (the exact amounts very by the color of the LED bulb).
A 2013 paper in Environmental Science Technology found there is some concern about accelerated resource depletion. Since LED bulbs contain more metal than other lighting technologies, the impact on the environment in both the manufacture and disposal of them is high than with traditional incandescents (though still far lower than CFLs).
For example, because LEDs generate a fair amount of heat, they often include a heat sink. Metal-finned heat sinks are often made of aluminum, an excellent choice for heat dissipation, but a metal which is energy-intensive to mine, and involves the creation of hazardous materials as a by-product.
This concern is mitigated by the vastly longer lifespan of LEDs when compared to that of a traditional incandescent bulb. As such, as LEDs gain market share, the creation-to-disposal churn of lighting lamps is steadily declining. Further, the presence of some material such as copper in LEDs means that the recycle value of these bulbs is higher than other technologies. In the coming decades, as more LEDs reach the end of their productive life, the demand for them in recycling centers is likely to go up as well. So LED lamps are more likely to be recycled than simply end up in a landfill.
What all of this means is that LEDs are far and away the most environmentally friendly lighting option available to residential and commercial customers. Their low energy use, combined with the reduced carbon footprint of their packaging and distribution and their relatively benign disposal status makes them appealing to those who are cost conscious as well as environmentally friendly.
As LEDs are used in more places for more purposes, it’s expected that their environmental impact will only continue to lessen. Whether you embrace them for financial or philosophical reasons, a switch to LED lighting makes sense for today’s bottom as well as tomorrow’s generations.
With over a decade of construction experience, Dan Stout writes articles that help demystify the industry for both contractors and customers. Visit him at www.DanStout.com.