LEDs Outshine Traditional Bulbs in Power-Starved North Korea

nk-electricity-april-2012.jpg A North Korean worker is seen from the window of a train as he fixes an electricity pole along the railway between Pyongyang and North Pyongan province, April 8, 2012.

North Koreans are rushing to purchase China-made light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to light their homes, despite high costs, because of their comparative efficiency over incandescent bulbs—a crucial advantage in their power-starved reclusive nation.

While the cost of LED bulbs can be more than three times that of normal incandescent bulbs, residents are willing to bear the higher price because they can operate normally on low voltage, sources recently told RFA’s Korean Service.

Electricity flow to North Korean households is limited by the country’s heavily strained power grid.

“Recently, there has been a rapid increase in the number of people seeking LED bulbs,” said a source from North Korea’s Chagang province, near the border with China, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Merchants are rushing from far inland to [Chagang’s border city of] Manpo to purchase the bulbs.”

The rush to acquire LED bulbs comes despite a February report in the official Korean Central News Agency which said that the country’s lighting appliances factories in Pyongyang, Samcholli, and Rangnang Myohyang had ramped up production to replace all lighting in the nation with LED technology.

The report said that “an increasing number of LED lamps are applied to households and public buildings” and that “the lamps have already been installed at hotels and edifices,” but gave no indication of when the campaign was expected to be completed.

It was unclear if the pace of production has adequately met demand for the new lighting, which could account for why North Koreans are reportedly now seeking out LEDs from Chinese producers.

Sources told RFA that the soaring popularity of LED bulbs was attributed to their ability to emit light despite North Korea’s regular failure to provide households with the full 220 volts required to operate most electrical appliances at full capacity.

They said that North Korean homes only receive around 170 volts during the summer months and up to 100 volts in the winter—if the system is not suffering from a full blackout—making it very hard to see at night with an incandescent bulb operating at below its 220 volt power requirement.

“LED bulbs can emit light even when the voltage falls below 70 volts … [and] this characteristic makes residents of North Korea desperately seek them out, even though they are much more expensive than a regular bulb,” one source said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, another advantage of LEDs is their comparative length of useful life. High-powered LEDs are estimated at up to 50,000 hours versus up to 2,000 hours for incandescent bulbs and 15,000 hours for fluorescent tubes.

A source in Yanggang province, also bordering China, told RFA that the shape of LEDs determines the cost of the bulb at markets in North Korea.

“The price of a [incandescent] light bulb is 3 yuan (U.S. $0.50), but the price of an LED bulb varies depending on its shape,” he said.

“LED bulbs which can fit into a regular bulb socket cost more than 10 yuan (U.S. $1.60).”

The Yanggang source said that despite the significant difference in cost, LED bulbs had become so popular that they are now used in at least “one room for each family.”

He said that while border cities such as Manpo and Sinuiju, in North Pyongan province, are popular with merchants seeking electronic components and toys from China, border cities in Yanggang province are known for used Chinese motorcycles and computers, and those in North Hamgyeong province are known for Chinese shoes, clothing, and cosmetics.

Power problems

In November last year, a source inside North Korea told RFA that the country is unable to meet about 70 percent of its electricity needs, forcing people to use alternative power sources to light up their homes.

The source said that as the weather became colder in the winter, reducing North Korea’s hydroelectric production, consumers had lined up to purchase costly Chinese generators—which at around 250 yuan (U.S. $40) are way beyond the salary of an average worker—to supplement their power supply.

The North requires nearly 2 1/2 times the amount of its annual electricity production capacity to meet the nation’s basic power needs and is urgently seeking assistance from its ally China, a North Korean electrical engineer told RFA in October.

North Korea suffers from widespread electricity shortages and is moving towards hydroelectric power as a supplement for its dwindling coal resources.

But even Pyongyang, where residents normally enjoy one of the most reliable power supplies in any city across the nation, often suffers severe power shortages due in part to the inability of its supplying dam to operate at full capacity during the annual dry season, sources have said.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jina Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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