The happy marriage of state government support for energy efficiency and the coming of age of LED lighting technology has successfully transformed the entire lighting industry.
We all know that LED-equivalent lighting uses a fraction of the energy of the old lights, and their introduction was imminent. The incentives offered in energy efficiency schemes meant that fluorescent tubes, high bays and downlights have been replaced at almost unbelievable rates. Hundreds, probably thousands, of container loads of LEDs have been installed in Victoria, NSW, the ACT and South Australia.
But putting the lighting industry into hyperdrive is only part of the change delivered by the schemes. Fortunately, government policymakers recognised what would happen if incentives were applied without a major tightening of controls, moving to fill major gaps in the lighting industry. At the time there were no standards for LED products and the rewiring of light fittings in the change to LED had not been identified as even a guideline, let alone necessary.
The governments stipulated that only those lights that have produced quality test results be registered and available for the incentives thus avoiding the dumping of cheap poor quality product. The schemes applied additional requirements for lighting plans and lux measurements, warranties, post installation audits and recycling. This significantly changed an industry that was used to simply replacing “like for like” and throwing the old ones in the skip.
Indeed, the recycling of the mercury-containing fluorescent tubes prior to the schemes was abysmal at about five per cent according to FluoroCycle. Although dumping of the tubes is in contradiction to Environment Protection Authority laws, correct disposal relied on voluntary measures and was failing with more than nine in every 10 tubes taking their toxic mercury and fluorescents to landfill.
The energy efficiency scheme policymakers were rightly concerned about what would happen when light replacements would jump and took action. Correct disposal became mandatory under the schemes, with certified proof required. Cardboard recycling boxes gave way to skips of tubes heading to centres where they were smashed inside specially made machines that spin the glass and the metal off and drop the precious but dangerous mercury to be used again. This comes at an additional cost but a worthwhile one to mitigate a major toxic outcome that would most certainly have occurred if not for the new rules.
Another transformation underway was probably less predictable. Few would have foreseen the disruption to an age old market dominance by half a dozen big lighting companies distributing product through even fewer big wholesalers. All of a sudden new companies were sourcing product direct from overseas and supplying scheme participants without going through the wholesalers. The vast majority of the millions of LED lights have not come from the old guard, but from new, lean and hungry suppliers pitching straight at mass changeovers of the old, inefficient lights that had been there forever. Who would have thought the legacy suppliers and wholesalers would have been so slow to react?
Further along the chain we also witnessed electricians being specifically trained in the rules of compliant installation, heightened health and safety, and mandatory recycling so they could work in the schemes. They would learn about the new products and the bypassing of ballasts and capacitors no longer required or desirable. Electricians would be seen drawing lighting plans and snapping never-ending photos using software in smart phones. The phones much smarter than the software – just ask any sparky.
So here we are several years down the track and millions of registered LED globes have replaced old energy guzzlers (which were often better at producing heat than light) with a huge reduction in not only emissions but toxic waste.
Well done policymakers in NSW, ACT, Victoria and SA. You refused to accept the status quo and thanks to your energy efficiency schemes we are not only saving millions in energy costs but the lighting industry may never be the same.
Let’s hope that the changes delivering quality outcomes move beyond the energy efficiency schemes – including and in particular mandatory recycling!
Bruce Easton is founder and chief executive of energy efficiency company Ecovantage.