We're all too often met with the question: “Hey, those LED lights are great, but doesn’t it take more energy to make them than they ever save?” Fair question, but misguided.
While the question doesn’t pass the sniff test, we haven't had a rigorous and peer-reviewed scientific answer …. until now.
The Lumina Project Team, in partnership with Lighting Africa, has just completed a novel and peer-reviewed assessment of embodied energy in LED off-grid lighting products based on complementary studies from the field and in the lab. It is titled "High Life-cycle Efficacy Explains Fast Energy Payback for Improved Off-Grid Lighting Systems" and is being published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
You can get some hints about the approach from the name of the journal. The "industrial ecology" of the situation is that off-grid lighting essentially empowers people to stop burning kerosene (or burn less in some cases) at their homes in exchange for fossil fuel consumption that happen where products are made...a shift in the industrial ecosystem.
We found that the energy embodied in the LEDs, batteries, housing, wiring, chargers, and other components of LED systems for most lighting systems is “paid back” within a month or two of use thanks to the kerosene saved. Looked at another way, the LED light saves 10-40 times as much energy as it takes to manufacture that same light. The key innovation that unlocks these savings is the high efficacy (efficiency at turning energy into visible light) of LED lights compared to flames.
These are major energy savings and are on par with making "energy investments" in large scale wind power or solar energy. In addition to the energy savings, benefits people get better service, have reduced health and safety risks, and can save money. Those benefits arguably are more important for the global poor than less tangible climate and energy concerns, and it turns out that modern lighting is a win-win.
Plus, as LED products improve (both product quality and the efficacy of LED sources) we anticipate longer service lives and more successful displacement of kerosene lighting, both of which will significantly speed the already rapid recovery of embodied energy in these products.
Our study provides a long list of embodied energy for a variety of components used to construct off-grid LED lighting systems and we invite readers to use this information to analyze other products.
Read all about it in our new report, which can be downloaded here.