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Energy efficient lighting: A Nobel cause

LED lighting is a technology making a reputation for itself - so much so, in fact, that it’s now got a Noble Prize for Physics to its name. Well, sort of; Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamur received the accolade for developing the blue LED which ultimately made white light LED lamps possible. It’s a very practical victory in the Physics category of Nobel Prize-giving, with previous winners often coming from the fields of theoretical and particle physics. But it’s definitely a winner for the times, with Frances Saunders, president of Britain's Institute of Physics, emphasising the potential energy savings of the breakthrough:

"With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent. Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura’s research has made this possible and this prize recognizes this contribution."

LEDs are not the last frontier for energy efficient lighting. In fact, such a high profile honour could further stimulate the race to even higher levels of efficiency. Two-thirds of the Nobel-winning research team were based in Japan, and it is here too where some say the next generation technologies will emerge from. In particular, carbon nanotubes are seen as likely to eventually replace silicon parts in light sources - with one flat model from a research team at Tohuku University claiming power consumption of a hundred times lower than today’s LEDs. Yes, you did read that right. It seems that the technological leaps forward in lighting our spaces while using less energy are still potentially massive, but as for what’s available now, there are some who remain to be convinced.

An opinion piece in the New York Times on the back of the Nobel Prize raised a note of caution; the potential of something of an economic ‘rebound effect’ whereby demand for the LEDs, and new uses for them, could outstrip their efficiency savings. The pieces authors cite lighting examples from history: Kerosene replacing gas lamps, electric lighting trumping kerosene and so on, with more overall energy consumption. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the piece ends with something of a call to arms for more of a widespread change in energy generation:

"Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world... But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.”

We’d definitely second the low carbon energy call, though wouldn’t share the view that LED savings can’t be made (see our report on LED installations in social housing for a bit of evidence on that). That said, with all low carbon advances, potential rebounds are always something to guard against.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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