Chile: LED light bulb heist highlights high cost of energy

Approximately $100,000 worth of LED light bulbs were stolen in Santiago, Chile, where electricity can cost more than 10 percent of the median income.

The thieves pulled up in silence late Sunday night, creeping into a vacant lot next to the ByP warehouse in an industrial zone of Santiago. They broke into the warehouse, loaded up their truck with loot, snagged the security camera tapes, and were off.

Gone with them, according to Chile’s national police, were about 40,000 LED light bulbs, worth $100,000.

LED lighting is increasingly popular around the world: It uses about a 30th of the electricity consumed by conventional incandescent bulbs, and saves money. That’s attractive to a Chilean family that spends an average $28 a month on electricity. The bills add up in a country where the median per capita income is about $240 a month.

Indeed, while Chile’s electricity is far from the world’s most expensive (the International Energy Agency reports that Denmark spends 41 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 21 cents in Chile), retail prices are about twice as high as in the United States. That’s because Chile’s economy and consumption keep growing, while big coal and hydro generating stations have been slowed or stopped by environmental lawsuits. Lower-impact renewable energy, like wind or solar, are tough to finance since Chile’s regulations say such higher-price power sources must remain off-line until all the cheaper alternatives are at capacity. The upshot is that all electricity has grown more expensive.

So it’s up to individual households and businesses to find efficiencies where they can here. Enter the LED light.

But saving money in the long run can have high up-front costs. A single LED light bulb at Chile’s biggest hardware chain retails for at least $10. For that much money, a customer can buy two compact fluorescent bulbs. Sure, that’s penny-wise and pound foolish. The compact fluorescent will use 7 times more power and the old-fashioned incandescent will use 30 times more power, not to mention that the incandescent will blow out while LEDs and fluorescents can stay lit for years.

But if people lack the capital to invest in more efficient lamps, what can they do? There are places in the world where the government or power companies subsidize the purchase of this type of energy-saving device. Such programs are rare in Chile. The burglars at ByP found one creative – and immoral – way to save electricity, assuming they don’t get caught.

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