It’s difficult enough for some theatres to keep the lights on. And now, new EU regulations are inadvertently threatening to make it a physical impossibility.

The European Commission’s snappily-titled “Ecodesign Working Plan 2016 – 2019” will require all light fixtures and accessories sold after September 2020 to meet improved efficiency targets. In the previous version of the rules, studio and theatre lighting was exempt from the targets, as long as the lights designed for this purpose were not used domestically. But this exemption has now gone missing.

That’s good news for the environment, but bad news for your local Christmas panto. For theatrical lighting, this immediately excludes all traditional tungsten filament fixtures, which will no longer be able to be maintained due to the ban on selling the inefficient replacement parts. LED based lights, which are already taking over from filament lights, are expected to solve the issue, but currently are not a viable option.

Part of the problem is the Commissions’s apparent assumption that current luminaires (light fixtures) can be modified with LED bulbs. Mike Wood, a theatrical lighting consultant, says this is not the case. “You as a consumer can throw away your incandescent bayonet lamp, buy an LED lamp and screw it in. But there are no replacement screw lamps for theatrical fixtures.” Instead, the only option is to replace the entire unit, which is both expensive and wasteful, since traditional theatre lights are very reliable, and can easily have a lifespan of decades. This then requires a replacement of the control systems, since LED lights have more complex electronics within them that require a new infrastructure to use.

And it gets more complicated still. The design of the human eye means it struggles to see the extremities of the colour spectrum. To make up for this the most vivid colours need to be made brighter on stage in order to be seen clearly. This requires more power, and therefore makes a colour mixing luminaire less efficient again. As the ALD’s publication on the regulations states, the limitations here are of human physiology, optics and physics, “none of which can be changed by regulation”.

So is it possible for LEDs to become efficient enough for this mixing approach to be viable again in future? There is positive news on that front. While the brightness of LEDs is the main priority for the researchers, and only one of several for lighting designers, this will end up lowering costs, one of the most significant barriers to increased adoption of the technology.