Oct 29, 2009

German Hoards Light Bulbs before the EU ban

Reporting from Frankfurt, Germany - Here's a twist: How many lightbulbs does it take to change a person?

For Ulf Erdmann Ziegler, the answer is 3,000. That's how many bulbs are squirreled away in his modest apartment here in Frankfurt, the number that turned an otherwise ordinary guy into a hoarder, made him the object of his neighbors' pity and got him thinking about death and divorce.

His enormous stockpile is the fruit of a frenzied summer shopping spree. For weeks, he spent many of his waking hours on the phone and online tracking down vendors and snapping up enough incandescent bulbs to last him the rest of his life.

The buying binge was necessary, he said, to beat a ban by the European Union. As of Sept. 1, the manufacture and import of 100-watt incandescent bulbs have been outlawed within the EU, to be followed by their dimmer brethren in coming years. Once current stocks are gone, such bulbs will join Thomas Edison in the history books.

"It will run out," Ziegler warned of the limited supply, "and everyone will be sorry."

The ban is part of the EU's effort to retard global warming. The object is to encourage people to switch from traditional energy-wasting incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lamps, which last longer and are up to 75% more efficient.

For EU officials, it's all about the math. Ditching old-fashioned bulbs, they say, will save nearly 40 billion kilowatt-hours a year by 2020, equivalent to the output of 10 power stations. Australia has already abandoned incandescent bulbs, and the United States is set to begin phasing them out in the next few years as well.

But not everyone considers it such a bright idea. The ban has been met with some resistance in Europe, showing what happens when the collective goal of greening the planet clashes with issues of individual choice and even aesthetics.

Dissenters such as Ziegler have sprung up across the continent, people who complain that fluorescent lamps are inferior, more expensive and come with their own environmental problems. Art galleries fret over how best to display their works without the warm glow cast by incandescent bulbs. A petition to save the conventional bulb is circulating on the Internet.

There have also been reports of runs on lighting stores. In Britain, where major retailers began taking 100-watt incandescent bulbs off their shelves even earlier, in January, a retired teacher in southern England spent $800 of her pension to buy 1,000 of them.

"There's been quite a bit of consumer backlash," acknowledged Peter Hunt, chief executive of Britain's Lighting Assn. "A lot of it we expected."

To help consumers and manufacturers get used to the change, the EU decided not to ax all incandescent bulbs at once. Last month's ban covers 100-watt clear bulbs and all frosted ones. Clear 40- and 60-watt incandescents are to be eased out by September 2012.

The advantages of the ban outweigh any deficiencies, EU officials say. Good-quality fluorescent bulbs can last years, many times the life span of regular bulbs, so although they cost more, they are more economical in the long run.

The new lamps also cut electricity bills because of their more efficient use of energy. In conventional bulbs, most of the energy is lost as heat rather than converted to light.

"You can . . . look at it the same way that you're looking at improvements of washing machines and fridges, where consumers don't even notice that the fridges [have] become more efficient," said Andras Toth, a policy officer in the EU's energy directorate.

Maybe. But then how to explain that low-energy fluorescent lamps have been around for 25 years but have never caught on with consumers? Though he supports the switch-over, Hunt acknowledges that there were good reasons why fluorescent bulbs were passed over on store shelves.

"The early ones were the size of large jam jars, they flickered, they had a cold blue light and they took a long time to switch on," he said. "So it's not surprising that consumers have a bad preconception of this lighting."

The technology has improved considerably on all those counts, Hunt said. But fluorescent bulbs haven't shaken their bad rap.

Their start-up time still lags well behind the instant on-and-off of incandescent bulbs. They cannot be used with dimmer switches. And the most commonly available ones still do not provide the same spectrum of light as the old lamps, which worries art collectors, photographers and others who need light sources that offer sharp color rendition. (Officials point out that halogen bulbs, which give off light of a similar quality to incandescent varieties, remain on the market.)

Then there is the fluorescent bulbs' mercury content, up to 5 milligrams per bulb. Cleaning up a shattered bulb requires more than just sweeping up jagged shards: Users should ventilate the room and avoid touching pieces with bare skin.

Still, "if you compare it to other mercury content, like dental fillings, the amount we're talking about is really rather small," Toth said. "And you have to be extremely unlucky to be exposed to it in a dangerous way."

None of that cuts any ice with Ziegler.

A writer and former art critic, he sees the EU's ban as unnecessarily extreme. Why not slap a tax on the old-fashioned bulbs, rather than outlaw them entirely?

"The law just says you can't use the best lightbulb ever invented," he grumbled.

A few months ago, with the Sept. 1 deadline looming like a neon sign, he decided to take preemptive action.

With typical German precision, he went through every room of his apartment with a floor plan in hand, marking an X wherever there was a light fixture -- about 25 in all -- and noting what kind of bulb it required. Then he took the checklist to his local vendor, who worked out how many bulbs Ziegler would need for the next decade.

"I said forget 10 years," Ziegler recalled. "I want a lifetime supply."

That, though, posed an unanticipated question. At 50, he suddenly had to ponder -- or guess -- how much longer he expected to live. He drafted his wife into his existential contemplations, and together, like actuaries, they finally decided that a lifetime supply meant enough bulbs to last 30 years.

Laying his hands on 3,000 incandescent bulbs was another story. He cleaned out one supplier and went on to the next, seeking them out on the Internet. Bulky packages kept arriving at the apartment, and "I was not unaware of the pitying looks of my neighbors," he confessed in a newspaper column.

Thankfully, his wife supported his panic buying, because she "hates [fluorescent bulbs] even more than I do," Ziegler said.

But that sparked yet another uncomfortable discussion. Who gets custody of the hoard in case of divorce? (Stay tuned.)

For now, the incandescent cache is carefully stowed away in the attic, to which Ziegler disappears to extract an unusually shaped bulb to show a visitor the way a wine lover might disappear down the cellar to produce a prized bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Ziegler still hopes the EU ban will somehow fail, or be repealed. He's mulling the idea of writing a political manifesto on behalf of the incandescent bulb, laying out its history and its merits.

And he urges people to build their own stockpiles as soon as they can, before supplies dry up.

"If you want to get in on it, get in," he said. "It's not too late."

10-18-09
henry.chu@latimes.com

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