LEDs Show How Tectonic Shifts in Technology Can Tackle the Climate Crisis

What happened with lighting may bode well in dealing with our climate crisis.

Woman Reading by Candlelight (1908). Peter Ilsted (Danish, 1861-1933)
"Woman Reading by Candlelight" by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted

Lighting has come a long way and its increasing affordability may foreshadow how we deal with the climate crisis. For the Financial Times, writer Joy Lo Dico discusses the history of lighting and the incredible drop in cost over the years. She noted that "it would have taken the average worker half a day to earn enough money to light their home for an hour in 1851." For reference, 1851 is the year "Moby-Dick" was published, a story of whalers chasing whales for their oil that was then used in lamps. “Butchers we are, that is true,” says the narrator of "Moby-Dick." But the world pays us “the profoundest homage . . . for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn to our glory!”

Lo Dico refers to a 1998 essay by economist William Nordhaus, which traced the decline in the cost of lighting from the era of tallow candles, 40 cents to get a thousand lumens for an hour, through the time of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), which cost 0.124 cents in 1992.

nordhaus list

William Nordhaus

Treehugger covered this back in 2017 in the post, "How the Cost of Lighting Has Changed Over Time." Since Nordhaus wrote his essay, LEDs have supplanted CFLs. I just calculated they are costing me about 0.11 cents per hour for 1,000 lumens in 2022 dollars—or about 0.06 cents in 1992 dollars. So, the cost has dropped in half since Nordhaus did his math.

drop in the price of lighting

Our World in Data

Our World In Data researchers have plotted this as well. It has gotten to the point that even with the rise in electricity rates, lighting is now essentially free, which is why we are seeing so much more of it.

For the last few years, I have claimed the dramatic increase in the use of LEDs in weird, new ways is an example of Jevons' Paradox, writing that "lighting has become so cheap that it has turned into a bauble, into decoration." At one point, I suggested (without any empirical evidence to back it up) that we may be using more energy because of LED lighting rather than less because this was different from anything we had seen before.

I wrote:

"I continue to believe that the LED revolution is different than, say, the development of the hybrid Prius or the improvement in fridges. This is, like the Watt steam engine, a revolution in technology of the magnitude that Watt's engine was over Newcomen's. People are dreaming up new uses for them every day."

Reading Nordhaus's paper again, it appears he anticipated technological revolutions and how they affect prices, noting: "The last century has seen massive changes in transportation, communication, lighting, heating and cooling, and entertainment. Indeed the tectonic shocks of changing technologies have occurred in virtually every area."

He describes three different kinds of changes in goods, services, and technologies since the 19th century:

  1. Run-of-the-mill changes where changes happen slowly and incrementally, like food or furniture.
  2. Seismically active sectors where there have been major changes in the quality of goods, but it is still recognizable to its earlier counterparts. His examples are housing or watches, which still tell time but now take your pulse, although he did write this long before the Apple Watch.
  3. Tectonic shifts where the technology changes radically and "there is virtually no resemblance between the consumption activity today and that of the early nineteenth century." This would include everything from our lighting, refrigeration, air conditioning, and our computers.

Nordhaus concludes we are undervaluing these tectonic shifts and we are much richer than we know. It's an interesting point: When it comes to our computers and our lighting, we are living like kings. Lighting is free, and as Lo Dico notes, "From the comfort of an office or a sofa, a vast library of information and entertainment came via a computer screen, backlit to boot." And backlit with LEDs. However, with the food we eat or the homes we live in, things are just incrementally better and are getting more expensive.

But the lesson of the LED is instructive. They were developed in response to the energy crisis, as a way of getting the efficiency of CFLs without the awfulness of the light quality, and they have taken over the world—and they are not alone in being revolutionary.

renewables droping in price


The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III report shows how the price of photovoltaics and lithium batteries, both examples of Nordhaus' tectonic shifts, have dropped almost as fast as the price of lighting, at least prior to the current supply crisis. LED bulbs are small, cheap, and are drop-in replacements for Edison Screw E26 bases that have been standard since 1909, which is why their uptake has been almost instantaneous. It is not so easy with photovoltaics or with cars, houses, or grid-sized batteries. But without anyone even paying attention, those batteries have caused an e-bike revolution.

I suspect the next revolution will come with the air-source heat pump and induction range, which will effectively put natural gas out of business more quickly than people imagine unless it is stopped by regulatory lock-in, as is being threatened in some U.S. states.

Lo Dico is writing from the United Kingdom at a time when the prices of gas and electricity have risen by as much as 50%, and people are hurting. But they are not feeling pain from their lighting; it is mostly from heating and hot water. Had U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron not "cut the green crap" in 2013, millions of British homeowners wouldn't be feeling as much pain from heating.

Price of lithium ion batteries
The price of lithium batteries before recent supply chain issues.

Our World In Data

But this is why after reading the recent IPCC report, and after re-reading Nordhaus, I am fundamentally optimistic. Because we do have the technologies and the knowledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The LED bulbs show us how, even if the other problems are a bit harder.

As climate journalist Amy Westervelt noted in The Guardian: "The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests."

View Article Sources
  1. Lo Dico, Joy. "The price of lighting our homes has always been steep." Financial Times, 20 Apr. 2022.

  2. Nordhaus, William D. "Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not." Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics at Yale University, no. 957, 1998.

  3. Westervelt, Amy. "IPCC: We can tackle climate change if big oil gets out of the way." The Guardian, 5 Apr. 2022.