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Are We Right in Adopting LED Technology?

LED technology enables manufacturers to create strips of LEDs such as these

As electricians in Houston, TX, one of the largest cities in the United States with a massive energy infrastructure, Blanco Electric is often asked by homeowners and business owners if replacing traditional lights (bulbs and tubes) with LED technology is a wise choice.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are changing the lighting industry with their greater energy efficiency and longevity. However, like any technology, they come with potential environmental impacts which we ought to be aware of.

LED technology raises 3 main environmental concerns:

  • Energy consumption during production,

  • Use of rare earth elements, and

  • Electronic waste.

What science are these concerns based on? Are they real? Are there counterpoints or mitigating factors? In the medium to long term, considering the need to use energy more efficiently and pollute less, are we right in substituting LED technology to other lighting technologies in our home and businesses?

Because we are electrical contractors, it is our job to dive into these issues and bring some solid answers to our clients. Let’s look at the pros and cons, and reach some conclusions together.

1. The Case Against LED technology

Energy Consumption During Production: LEDs require a significant amount of energy to manufacture. This assertion is supported by various studies and reports.

The energy-intensive nature of LED production is primarily due to the complex processes involved in creating the semiconductor materials that form the core of LED technology.

One of the key components of LEDs is gallium nitride, used to produce blue light. The production of gallium nitride involves high-temperature processes that are energy-intensive (Mongabay, 2022).

The production of LEDs involves several other steps, including the creation of the LED chip, the assembly of the chip into a package, and the testing of the finished product ― all of which require energy.

Moreover, a study by Sivaram et al. (2011) found that the energy payback time for LEDs can be up to three years. This means that it takes up to three years of use for the energy savings from using the LED to offset the energy used in its production. This is a significant period, especially when compared to other types of lighting technologies.

Use of Rare Earth Elements: LEDs use rare earth elements like europium and terbium, which are limited in supply and are often mined in environmentally destructive ways.

Rare earth elements (REEs) are indeed limited in supply. They are critical to many so-called “green” technologies. However, their extraction and production are challenging due to their dispersion in the earth's crust and the complexity of their metallurgy (SpringerLink, 2022).

The mining and production of REEs often involve techniques that are not environmentally sustainable. According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 2012), the extraction process can lead to severe environmental impacts, including soil and water contamination, habitat destruction, and radiation hazards.

The mining of critical raw materials (including REEs) has been associated with low wages, water shortage, and acidified landscapes, posing significant threats to human rights and the environment (DW, 2021).

A report by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania (2023) also highlights the environmental liabilities of rare earth elements. It emphasizes that while REEs are essential to many clean energy technologies, their production can bring severe environmental impacts.

Electronic Waste: LEDs contribute to the growing problem of electronic waste. Kiddee et al. (2013) observed that LEDs, like other electronic devices, contain hazardous materials that can leach into the environment if not properly disposed of.

LEDs contain circuit board components. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates these materials as “Universal Waste” due to the high concentration of metals such as copper (Waveform Lighting).

The EPA defines "e-waste" or "electronic waste" as “used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life and are discarded, donated, or given to a recycler” (EPA). Given that LEDs have a finite lifespan, albeit longer than traditional lighting solutions, they inevitably contribute to e-waste once they reach the end of their useful life and are discarded.

A study published in ScienceDirect also discusses the potential economic and environmental benefits of recycling waste LEDs, indicating that they do indeed contribute to electronic waste, but also that their components can be valuable if properly recycled.

Scientific research underscores that the production and lifecycle of LEDs poses various degrees of threat to the environment. But can these threats be mitigated, and are they already mitigated? Could they also be offset by the purported benefits of LED technology?

Just as we examined the reality of the threats, we ought to examine the reality of the benefits for our homes, our businesses, and the environment. If there is indeed a case for LEDs, what science is it based on?

2. The Case for LED Technology

Energy Efficiency: While LEDs require energy to produce, they are far more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs.

A study by Tsao et al. (2010) showed that LEDs use up to 85% less energy than incandescent bulbs.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LEDs use at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, emit virtually no heat, and last 25 times longer.

In comparison, incandescent bulbs release 90% of their energy as heat, and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) release about 80% of their energy as heat.

LEDs are much more energy efficient than traditional incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs.

Longevity: LEDs last much longer than other types of light bulbs.

A study published in ScienceDirect titled "Trade-offs with longer lifetimes? The case of LED lamps considering product development and energy contexts" examined the optimal lifetimes for LED lamps from a lifecycle cost perspective. The main parameters include the upfront purchase price of the product as well as the costs of use during its lifetime (e.g., electricity costs). The study suggests that LED lamps have a longer lifespan compared to traditional lighting solutions, which contributes to their cost-effectiveness over time (ScienceDirect, 2019).

Another study titled "Extending the lifespan of LED-lighting products" published on ResearchGate revealed that the lifespan of LEDs ranged from 1460h -27,375h. However, the study also pointed out that nearly 80% of tested LED lighting products failed in the first year, indicating the importance of quality in determining the lifespan of LEDs (ResearchGate).

A study titled "Life cycle assessment of a modular LED luminaire..." published in ScienceDirect conducted a life cycle assessment of LED luminaires from a cradle-to-grave approach. The study suggests that the long lifespan of LEDs contributes to their overall environmental performance (ScienceDirect, 2021).

We can see that scientific evidence supports the assertion that LEDs have a longer lifespan compared to other types of light bulbs, contributing to their cost-effectiveness and environmental performance. However, it also is apparent that the quality of the LED products is a crucial factor in determining their actual lifespan. When you search Google for an “electrician near me”, one of the key questions to ask about the LED lighting systems they recommend is how highly rated these systems are in terms of durability.

Advances in Recycling: While LEDs do contribute to electronic waste, advances in recycling technology are making it easier to recover and reuse the materials in LEDs.

In this regard, a study by Lim et al. (2015) found that over 90% of the materials in LEDs can be recovered through advanced recycling processes.

A study published in ScienceDirect titled "A review of LED lamp recycling process from the 10 R strategy perspective" discusses the challenges and potential solutions for recycling LED lamps. This study suggests that recycling LED lamp technology requires a change from the traditional bulk material-based recovery process due to the multi-materials used in LEDs, including small quantities of precious metals. The authors propose a 10 R strategy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recovery, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Redesign, and Rethink) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of LED lamp recycling (ScienceDirect, 2021).

Another study titled "Waste LEDs in China: Generation estimation and potential recycling" published in ScienceDirect explores the potential economic and environmental benefits of recycling waste LEDs. This study provides dynamic suggestions for sustainable management of waste LEDs, indicating that advances in recycling technology can facilitate the recovery and reuse of materials in LEDs (ScienceDirect, 2022).

3. What can a Houston electrician conclude?

LED technology, like any technology, does have some negative impact on the environment. But when we consider the energy efficiency and longevity of LEDs, it becomes clear that the environmental benefits offset the environmental costs.

Electronic waste is one of these costs. But as recycling technology progresses, the impact of LED waste will be mitigated.

As electricians, we observe that LED technology has other positive effects. Its energy efficiency causes a dramatic decrease in the utility bills of families and businesses. When they light up a home at less than ¼ of the cost of traditional incandescent bulbs, LEDs produce an impact on a household budget that immediately translates into a higher quality of life. Considering the rising cost of electricity, this is no small feat.

Likewise, three years ago, LEDs used to cover only a part of the light spectrum. With the advances in LED technology, manufacturers have brought the CRI of LEDs to 97+. The CRI (or "Color Rendering Index") is a measure of how faithfully an artificial light source reveals colors in comparison with a natural light source. The CRI is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 representing the quality of light produced by a standard or natural light source (like the sun).

Most LEDs today offer a CRI of 96 to 97+, which means they faithfully reproduce natural light. The blueish light of the LEDs of yesterday is a thing of the past, and our homes today can benefit from quasi-natural lighting. Studies have shown that color can improve or worsen our mood, and the closer to natural light our lighting, the better we feel.

The quality of light is also critical for some types of businesses too, like hospitals, photo studios, and offices. LEDs offer a much better rendition of color than incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes.

As electricians in Houston, we can only conclude that LED technology has a favorable impact on our homes, our businesses, and our planet. As research progresses, as the environmental downsides of this technology are being addressed, we only see a “net positive” to adopting LED light in our homes and businesses.

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