Another Faulty New York Times Op-ed: 5 Reasons Why an Attack on LEDs Is Way Off the Mark

, , Senior energy analyst | October 9, 2014, 4:11 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

An op-ed in today’s New York Times from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tries to throw cold water on this week’s exciting announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics being awarded for blue LEDs, which made white LEDs possible and increasingly ubiquitous. This op-ed comes on the heels of a similar NYT-published contrarian piece on trees and climate change. Today’s, sadly, is similarly misguided. Here are five reasons why their critique is way off the mark.

LEDs don't need to do it alone. (Credit: Mj-bird CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

LEDs don’t need to do it alone. Photo: Mj-bird CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mistaken assumptions

Shellenberger and Nordhaus caution that “it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption,” because of the rebound effect, the tendency of people to use more of something once it’s gotten cheaper, which can undo benefits of energy efficiency.

There are lots of reasons why their reasoning doesn’t hold

1. Lighting is huge. As the Nobel committee noted, lighting accounts for a quarter of global electricity use. It accounts for 10-15 percent of a standard U.S. household’s electricity use.

And, as we look to integrate more and more solar in particular (which even Shellenberger and Nordhaus should like), the big evening load becomes a greater concern once solar has so deftly tackled our afternoon electricity peaks. Lighting is a huge piece of that evening demand, so addressing lighting is a seriously important tool in the toolbox of ways to smooth things out.

2. If rebound is anywhere under 100%, we’re making progress. The rebound effect that the authors note is real, well studied, and generally modest—well under 100%. One excellent overview resource on this issue, The Rebound Effect: Large or Small? by ACEEE’s Steven Nadel, summarized a review of a range of studies this way:

“We find that there are both direct and indirect rebound effects, but these tend to be modest. Direct rebound effects are generally 10% or less. Indirect rebound effects are less well understood but the best available estimate is somewhere around 11%. These two types of rebound can be combined to estimate total rebound at about 20%. We examined claims of “backfire” (100% rebound) and they do not stand up to scrutiny.”

Lighting is huge enough that even a 50% rebound—cutting lighting-based electricity demand half as much as the technology could have—would be a really big deal.

3. Timing matters (and now is much better than later). As with all climate solutions, the sooner we can get technologies like LEDs deployed, the more time we buy ourselves to do the next innovation, and the next. As a colleague pointed out to me this morning, if we had come up with electric light bulbs earlier, our world would have a much more robust whale population. But with climate change, we’re not talking about whales; we’re talking about us.

4. It’s not an either-or. Shellenberger and Nordhaus say that LEDs aren’t going to get us where we need to on climate change, and that what we need is cleaner energy supply. We obviously agree fully with the need to clean up our electricity supply, and work hard to help people understand the wealth of technologies, like wind and solar, already doing that.

Solar panels on a roof in Michigan

LEDs and other energy efficiency technologies make great partners for renewables like solar, carbon policies, and public education (Credit: snre/Flickr)

But we want—and need—both. Every kilowatt-hour we don’t use is one fewer kilowatt-hour we have to produce, which means that the renewable energy we build goes that much farther. When we looked at serious low-carbon pathways a few years back, we found that energy efficiency could turn a 25% renewable energy penetration into a 40% one—with no added renewables.

5. Recipes with one ingredient are awfully boring. Kevin Leahy (who works for Duke Energy) had a good tweet response today to the NYT piece:

@Revkin @TheBTI No single tech likely to save the day. Like a complex recipe-each ingredient matters.

LEDs are powerful, but are just one of the tools, and they and the whole gamut of energy efficiency technologies aren’t the whole picture—even paired with renewables. Climate policies—a price on carbon, for example—are key additional ingredients. So is public education about the opportunities to cut electricity use, cut carbon, and save money (think Cooler Smarter).

LEDs help make it easier to the get the necessary reductions, cut carbon, and cut the costs of meeting the carbon reductions we so dearly need.

Make it so

What this all adds up to is simple: LEDs can give us set amounts of light using a whole lot less electricity than incandescent bulbs. That’s a tremendous gift, made possible by stunning innovation, which the Nobel folks are right to recognize.

What we do with that gift is up to us. Combining smart efficiency technologies with smart technologies on the electricity generation side, smart policies, and public education are a great way to make sure LEDs live up to their potential.

And UCS is all over that. My colleagues, our supporters, and I are not going to make the mistake of assuming that LEDs on their own will help us cut energy and clean up our energy act. We’re going to make it happen.


Posted in: Energy, Global Warming Tags: ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Jojje Andersson

    Thanks for a nice analysis of some logical fallacies and factual errors from the NYT.
    I just want to add yet another argument on why the rebound effect would be expected to be reasonable low. The ones that already have lightning and just exchange their present light bulbs to LED are not really expected to increase their user off lights. If you have lights that sufficiently light your house you don’t have to increase the amount of light bulbs, or?
    I also totally agree with NicholB that this will enable poor people to get light with local solar power, which will not increase use of fossil fuels at a great extent.


    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, Jojje. I agree: The direct substitution would certainly not seem to lead to many more hours of use. A bigger issue is people adding lights/designing their living spaces differently. But there again, adding in not just clean energy, but carbon policies, to help balance things out can lead to the desired effects — lower costs and fewer environmental impacts. – John

  • NicholB

    Another thing that the BTI ‘rebound’ framing totally misses, is that LED’s are also the new cutting edge in develpment of poor countries. With very little electricity, people can now have electric light. Using just a very small solar panel and a battery. Or even with a hand-crank. Calling that ‘rebound’ is a total misnomer. Just a mind-bending rhetorical game that confuses the issues in stead of clarifying how things work, so we can see a way forward.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for that point, Nichol. You’re right that the power of LEDs to serve offgrid households (the focus of my 15 years of working in solar, pre-UCS) is a very different issue, and that Shellenberger and Nordhaus leave out that point.

      Fortunately, the Nobel committee didn’t; they were quite clear about the potential they saw there:

      “The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power.”

      And that potential is already being realized, with an amazing array of solar+LED products out there.



    • John Chatelle

      So a solar panel, battery and LED light is to be their lot in life. To be honest, if they get the chance, they’ll be driving a Lexus. They’ll live the best they can.

      We really need generation that is of higher power density than Fossil fuels. The Union of Concerned “Scientists” will never accept any generation system that is of Higher power density than fossil fuels; They’ll only accept generation systems that have lower power density than Oil and Gas and other such systems. It’s no coincidence Oil and gas companies, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are on the same page. Oil and Gas companies and many NGOs like the UCS, require the maintenance of the greater part of the current state of affairs due to the requirement of large revenue streams, which is not a requirement of Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhaus.

      We need to do more with less. In that vein LED technology is fantastic. The problem is in supply; turning to low power density systems does less with more; which is the opposite of what needs to be done.

      There are many power systems that if developed would “do more” than Fossil fuel systems at a lower level of infrastructure due to their higher power density. Why does the UCS oppose *all* such systems?

      • ucsjrogers

        If the Lexus they’ll be driving in your scenario gets 100 miles to the gallon, John, that seems like a better deal for them (and us) than one that gets 30 mpg — very much in keeping with the “doing more with less” approach. As Nichol and others point out, that’s a different/separate part of the equation, and I agree with you that LED technology is great for that.

        I’m not sure what you’re referring to with your last sentence, though, or the part about revenues streams. We continually and vigorously support all kinds of approaches and technologies to do more with less — less cost impact, less environmental impact, fewer energy security problems. See my colleagues’ blogposts yesterday on our analysis of the potential for much more renewable energy under the proposed EPA regulations for power plant carbon dioxide emissions. I’m all for moving forward; it’s staying still or sliding backward that I oppose. Really.

        – John

      • John Chatelle

        What I’m saying in my last sentence is that the UCS only accepts power generating technologies that have a lower power density than fossil fuel systems. Systems that rely on sunshine and breezes for the bulk of their power generation will require far greater infrastructure mass to deliver even smaller power quantities than existing fossil fuel facilities.
        The reason UCS can not advocate for systems with higher power densities than fossil fuels is, in my best estimation, because if they did, the revenue stream of UCS would fall off a cliff… We see evidence in other NGOs: We see that Sierra club takes money from Chesapeake Energy according to the NY times… We also see the reports that Friends of the Earth started with seed money from the once CEO of Arco a major petroleum company. We know the strongest influence on the NRDC are the founding Legal industry members (Giant Law Firm LLCs in NYC), whom most likely have very lucrative contracts with the fossil energy industries.
        The worst thing is that the money is for the most part impossible to track, NGOs like the Sierra Club, FOE, NRDC and the UCS pretty much can obscure their revenue sources. Thank Goodness, however occasionally they make a mistake and get caught with a bright light shining on them and their most lucrative associations in the Fossil Fuel industries.

        Who wants sunshine and breezes to be the energy source to compete with fossil fuels? That would be the UCS, Arco, Sierra Club, Chesapeake Energy, Exxon Mobile, the NRDC, Gaz Metro Canada, British petroleum Russian Gazprom…..

        How can we prove it? This way: Each of those entities have, Windmills and solar panels featured strongly in their advertisements. It is clear to me that the energy companies want weak competition (low power density) systems as their competition, and the NGOs mentioned want to support them in their efforts.

  • Richard Solomon

    Not being very sophisticated about these issues I was taken aback by the NYT piece you have described. THANKS for putting it in a more reasonable context grounded in facts while still noting the need for much more efforts in many other respects.

    Have you sent a letter to the editor asking the Times to publish a full fledged reply? Or at least made a comment to it in the manner allowed? That way more people would benefit from you analysis.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, Richard. We have submitted a letter to the editor of the Times, making some of the same points. And I expect a lot of other people are also taking them to task over this one. – John

      • Richard Solomon

        Glad to hear you have done this. I have never had any luck getting a letter to the Times published up to now….maybe 3-4 times. But maybe you will get more traction with a UCS connection.