Energy-efficient light bulbs cost more in high-poverty areas

(Credit: Getty Images)

Energy-efficient light bulbs are more expensive and less available in high-poverty urban areas than in more affluent locations, according to a new study.

Researchers explored disparities in the availability and price of energy-efficient bulbs by surveying 130 stores across Michigan’s most populous county.

“The ability to benefit from the transition to more energy-efficient lighting is not equitably distributed, and those disparities raise energy justice concerns.”

They found that the cost to upgrade from a conventional incandescent bulb to a highly efficient light-emitting diode, or LED, was twice as high in the highest-poverty areas. At the same time, the price for less-efficient incandescent and halogen lamps (IHLs) decreased as the poverty level increased.

Those disparities could lead residents of poorer neighborhoods to continue buying IHLs and miss one of the simplest ways to cut home energy bills: residential lighting upgrades.

“The light bulb price and availability patterns we found point to potential barriers to the adoption of energy-efficient lighting in higher-poverty neighborhoods,” says lead author Tony Reames, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and director of its Urban Energy Justice Lab.

“The ability to benefit from the transition to more energy-efficient lighting is not equitably distributed, and those disparities raise energy justice concerns.”

In the US, lighting accounts for about 20 percent of the average household’s energy bill, and residential lighting is undergoing a rapid transition to increased energy efficiency. But for many households—especially the poor—the upfront costs of upgrading from an incandescent or halogen bulb to more efficient compact fluorescent lamps or LEDs is a significant barrier, researchers say.

High-poverty neighborhoods often lack large retail chains that sell products at lower prices and are instead associated with small retailers that generally sell at higher prices. And households in high-poverty areas often have less access to personal vehicles so are more dependent on the offerings of nearby stores.

Researchers looked at residential lighting prices and availability at five store types: large retail stores such as WalMart and Home Depot, hardware stores, variety stores such as Family Dollar and Dollar General, pharmacies, and small retail stores such as mini marts, corner delis, and liquor stores.

A survey of 18 zip codes in Wayne County, stratified by the percentage of households living below the federal poverty level, showed that energy-efficient lighting availability and price varied across the county, with limited availability and higher prices disproportionately present in high-poverty areas.

Large retail stores, primarily in areas with less poverty, had the least-expensive compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs. The most expensive CFLs and LEDs were found at pharmacies and small retail stores.

Here’s when to buy LED light bulbs

In fact, none of the small retail stores in the poorest sector (40 percent or more of the households living below the federal poverty level) carried LEDs, while 92 percent of them carried less-efficient incandescent and halogen bulbs.

In the poorest areas, there was a $6.24 mean price difference between IHLs and LEDs, “a huge upfront cost in areas where 40 percent or more of the households live in poverty and roughly 27 percent do not have access to a personal vehicle,”  the authors write.

Wayne County has a population of 1.8 million. Overall, 22.4 percent of its households live below the federal poverty level. The county includes a major central city, Detroit, with surrounding affluent communities and suburbs such as the Grosse Pointe communities and the sizeable suburban cities of Dearborn, Livonia, and Canton.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Applied Energy.

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Michigan.

Source: University of Michigan