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Hate Those Eco-Friendly Lightbulbs? LEDs Could Be the Answer

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Philips' LED lightbulb
Philips' LED bulb, the first L Prize entry, puts out the light of a conventional 60-watt bulb (rear), but uses just a sixth of the energy.
Government offers $10 million L Prize for energy efficient lighting that even CFL haters can love

Call it the curse of the CFL.

Back in 2007, before those swirly twists of glass had become mainstream, their energy-gobbling predecessors were put on death watch by Congress. The incandescent bulb, in use for more than a century, was judged too inefficient to meet the new standards established that year as part of a broader energy bill. Come 2012, the regulations require that common household bulbs use 20-30 percent less electricity. The U.S. push isn't unique, either: similar rules are coming on line in Australia, Canada, and Europe.

Enter compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. It didn't take long for the bulbs to emerge from their niche status and go mainstream, hyped by a blitz of utility incentives, industry ads, and public service messages. Spurred on by high electricity prices, the public dutifully unscrewed their Edison-era bulbs and subbed in the new eco-alternatives.

The backlash began almost immediately.

Compared to the familiar, warm light of incandescents, the glow of the worst compact fluorescents could be harsh, even cadaverous. The new bulbs were sometimes too big to fit under light shades or into fixtures. They weren't dimmable. They could take minutes to warm up. And despite prices of more than $10 per bulb, many compact fluorescents burnt out in mere months, not years as the packaging promised. Bad publicity piled up, and sales slowed.

"As an industry, we overpromised the benefits that CFLs could deliver," says Phil Rioux, a top executive with lighting giant Osram Sylvania. "We can't repeat that mistake."

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Rioux previously managed the company's compact fluorescent business. Now he's general manager of the division in charge of introducing the next generation light bulb to the world -- one that manufacturers and the government are counting on to replace incandescents and avoid the pitfalls that soured the public on compact fluorescents.

The new bulbs are called light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and since the day they were invented some 50 years ago, they've been recognized as the future of lighting. LEDs can produce light twice as efficiently -- in warmer, more eye-pleasing colors -- than today's compact fluorescents and last up to five times longer. And despite their still high up-front price, LEDs are popping up in everyday devices, from traffic lights to car signals to laptop screens, where their efficiency and durability are most valued.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is keen on the technology because a full-scale switch to LEDs promises huge reductions in national energy consumption and carbon emissions. Today, about 22 percent of U.S. electricity consumption is for lighting. By 2030, the DOE estimates, a gradual introduction of high-efficiency LEDs could cut energy use for illumination by 25 percent overall and shave as much as 6 percent from total electricity consumption.

Lighting Up a New Era

With LEDs, lighting would vault from 19th century technology into the digital age. In an incandescent bulb, light and waste heat are given off by a filament. In CFLs, the glow comes from electrified gasses. But in an LED, light emanates from a speck of electrically charged material -- a diode, about the size of a pencil point -- that's created in a process similar to the way computer chips are made. To assemble a complete bulb, a few diodes are combined into an array, which is then attached to other electronics and placed under lenses and reflectors in a package shaped like a conventional lightbulb.

Advanced as they are, LEDs are still expensive to purchase. And after the early pains of of CFLs, the public is sure to be gun shy when it comes to pricey new lighting choices.

That's where the L Prize comes in. Known officially as the "Brighter Tomorrow Lighting Competition," the L Prize is the most prominent in a handful of DOE efforts to help smooth the way for a broad rollout of LED lighting.

The prize encourages manufacturers to come up with affordable, screw-in substitutes for two of the most common bulbs used in the United States: the 60-watt bulb and common halogen floodlights, known in industry parlance as PAR38s. The winning design will match the output and quality of today's incandescents but use just around an eighth of the energy and last up to 25 times longer. The winners must also be dimmable and similar in form to today's bulbs.

When it was announced last year, the award's $10 million prize pool attracted all the attention. Yet for lighting makers, the real jackpot is the DOE's seal of approval. Winning designs will be the first choice for federal purchasing decisions and energy-efficiency programs at utilities, which are expected to put millions of the new high-tech bulbs into consumers' homes across the country. The bulbs will also be granted the right to carry the Energy Star label, which consumers have come to trust.

"The prize money matters, of course," says Jim Anderson, director of strategic marketing at Color Kinetics, a unit of Philips, the first and only company so far to submit an entry to the L Prize, for the 60-watt bulb replacement. "The real reward is that this program will open markets and give consumers more confidence."

The DOE anticipates more entries for the L Prize later this year and plans to declare winners in 2011. The award requires that entrants give evidence that they are able to produce at least 250,000 units in the first year of production and more thereafter. So entrants are likely to be limited to major global manufacturers such as GE, Osram Sylvania, Philips, and Toshiba. Earlier this month, Toshiba became the first major lighting maker to cease making incandescent bulbs, concentrating instead on compact fluorescents and LEDs.

Industry experts are confident they can drive down LED prices in time for the 2012 deadline when most incandescents go extinct in the United States. (The rules permit specialized incandescents, such as ornamental bulbs, to continue to be sold.) Thanks to steady improvements in the basic science and manufacturing of LED bulbs, the lamps double their efficiency  (measured as light output per unit of energy) every 18 months or so. This effectively halves their cost every couple of years.

So while LED replacement bulbs are available today for about $40, they'll be closer to $20 by 2012, and less than $10 by 2015, predicts Nadarajah Narendran, director of research at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Because the technology behind incandescent and compact fluorescents is mature, he adds, their efficiency won't get much better than it is today. LEDs, however, have a lot of improvement ahead. "They're probably only at about one-half of their theoretical potential efficiency," Narendran says.

Seeking a Stamp of Approval

Commercial buyers are adapting the technology ahead of consumers. Because they use so much less electricity and need to be replaced so infrequently, "LEDs already pay for themselves in savings, which is why hotels and other businesses have been quick to switch," says Jed Dorscheimer, a principal at market analyst Canaccord Adams. But for homeowners to get over the psychological hurdle of their high upfront costs, "LEDs still need to get a lot cheaper."

Even as LED bulbs inch toward mass-market acceptance, there are early signs that a repeat of the CFL debacle is possible. More than half of 350 LED products that the DOE has evaluated under its Caliper program (short for Commercially Available LED Product Evaluation and Reporting) have misleading claims. "Usually, the problem is the light output: the label will say it's a replacement for a 60-watt incandescent, and we find it puts out the light of a 25 watt," says Kelly Gordon, manager of the lighting program at the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Like early CFLs, many of today's LED offerings are also bedeviled by shorter lives than advertised. Over time, their light output can diminish significantly, too.

The DOE hopes its stamp of approval will help consumers steer clear of dubious bulbs (a similar program didn't exist for CFLs). But the wave of lesser-quality offerings might be even bigger than it was for CFLs, worries Steve Briggs, vice president of marketing and global product management for GE Lighting Solutions. After all, he explains, assembling LEDs into lights is technically easier than making compact fluorescents. "There are lower barriers to entry," he says. "There's a lot of venture capital money coming in, and they want to get to market quickly, so we're already beginning to see the CFL problem with early LEDs."

Meanwhile, DOE researchers are pushing ahead with the L Prize, hoping the government's approval will steer consumers to the best of the new generation of technology. At the DOE's sprawling Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, technicians are testing the 2,000 sample bulbs that Philips submitted as part of its prize application. Initial tests check to see if the bulbs' glow hits the mark for color quality and brightness. Longer term, 1,000 of the bulbs will be relayed to the DOE's partner utilities around the country. Some of these test units will go into homes, others into restaurants or offices, and still others outdoors, to see how they perform -- and whether consumers like them -- in real-world situations. Still more of the bulbs will be put through a gauntlet of harsh trials in a variety of settings. One batch is cooked in high heat and humidity, while another is subjected to extreme voltage and current conditions. Others are switched on and off constantly, while still others are zapped with electro-magnetic interference.

The goal, Gordon explains, is to deliver a new era of LEDs that can be easily recognized and trusted so that in a few years, the public will know where to turn when their last incandescent bulb winks out.

image of Adam Aston
Adam Aston is a freelance journalist and editor who focuses on green issues. Previously, Adam was energy and environment editor at BusinessWeek, where he covered corporate sustainability, renewable energy, and green finance while producing a regular ... READ MORE >

Thanks for taking the time to give some solid background on LED lighting. Many of the challenges you've outlined are real -- including bringing the price down and the mass production of LED lightbulbs with excellent performance.

However, I think it's important to note that LED lighting is being used for general lighting in a lot of applications. Some cities and universities are adopting LED streetlights, LED lighting in parking garages and lighting offices and dorm rooms with this energy-efficient technology. Restaurant and retail store owners are lighting their buildings with LED recessed downlights and PAR-38 bulbs to save energy, money, maintenance and to improve the overall light quality in their businesses. And even some homeowners are opting for LED downlights.

We show off examples of places using LED lighting at http://CreeLEDRevolution.com. We truly are experiencing an LED Lighting Revolution!

One way to avoid a repeat of some of the worst aspects of CFL performance issues might be for light fixture manufacturers to list whose LEDs they are using. If people are going to spend serious dollars on LED replacements bulbs/lights (and for the near-term future LEDs are going to carry a higher price tag), then they should know they are truly getting high performance LEDs made by companies who understand light output, color temperature, packaging, thermal management, etc. As a consumer, I would either pay a premium (or, if prices were equivalent), choose a light fixture that uses a known LED supplier.

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Thank you for your informative article - it was satisfying to read that this problem is being addressed.
However, in describing the drawbacks of CFLs, I noticed that not one mention was made about the mercury hazard of these items. They must be treated as hazardous waste, which is a collection problem, to say the least. Compliance with these rules is definitely problematic, as most municipalities are not collecting hazardous waste at curbside; not to mention that it's yet one more behaviour Americans must learn, and many people aren't even recycling bottles and cans. It's not well-thought-out, but then that's not surprising. We need to look at the "cradle to grave" or "cradle to cradle" (preferred) aspect of any new products intended for widespread use.
Are there any time bombs lurking under this new solution? I hope not. I'm enthusiastic, myself, and looking forward to that drop in cost that will swing the whole market in the direction of LED lighting.

I'm really looking forward to seeing efficient and long lasting LED's replacing fluorescent bulbs, hopefully in the near future. We are likely to continue to see efficiency improve and costs come down(much like computer chips) with each successive generation of bulb. I've also heard of emerging "quantum dot" technology which promises to revolutionize everything from lightbulbs to photovoltaic cells, however, I'm curious about the environmental impact of this and other nanotechnologies that are being touted as the next big thing. If we can produce an outstanding bulb that maximizes output with a minimum of input that last for 10 years, then I think we'll be moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, many companies still want to maintain degree of obsolescence in order to continue selling their products. One way of reducing the unsustainable pace of consumption is to regulate longevity standards on products so that they are "built to last". This really ought to be the capitalist model driving production rather then volume in cheap goods. Unless people get behind companies devoted to sustainable production models like the one I've suggested, the market will never change. Even so, I think we need to push our elected officials to strengthen consumer rights so that companies are pressured to adopt long-term strategies and sustainable practices.

Just as I was wondering what to do about light bulbs, since I cannot use CFLs (light-triggered migraines) here was this very useful article. We did put a CFL in the porch light since it is almost inaccessible; we use incandescents everywhere else. I wil be happy to switch to LEDs as they become available. And when I read that 22% ofelectric use is lighting, I immediately switched off my desk light! I will be more cognizant of light usage from now on.

I have a question though: What will we use in our Easy-Bake ovens?

I'm a disabled electrical engineer with MS and epilepsy. I felt I must comment on this glowing report on LED lighting.

Todays white LED's are really just another form of fluorescent light- a dab of phosphor is excited by an underlying blue/UV LED.

The spectral character of the light is the same as fluorescent lights, and it causes the same misery for some people, including myself. I have long thought that my problems with fluorescent lights was "flicker", but having tried white LEDs from a DC battery source, I know now that it is the unnatural spectral characteristic of glowing phosphor that is the problem.

In a recent test in my home with 4 disabled people who have trouble with fluorescent lights- all found a warm white LED "tube light" source extremely disturbing.

We are all dismayed that this light source is being touted as a solution, yet none of use could possibly function with these in our homes.

We need to get the word out that the phosphor based white LED lights are NOT a healthy, natural light spectrum, and that approaches using RGB LEDs or other techniques for a more natural light spectrum (like the good incandescent)should be given priority for R&D.

Thank you for discussing this critical topic. It is of the utmost importance as far as what we're being served up by the government and corporations as being something that's good for us when it's ridiculous. It's too obvious to ignore and needed to be brought to the light.
CFLs have become mainstream thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and lobbying, yet they are considered to be hazardous according to the EPA as the last person to comment pointed out.
According to the EPA, without proper recycling (which we can't even do with plastic bottles), they will leach into our water supply and contaminate drinking water. You can read that on their website under 'Proper recycling of CFLs', (IF they're not broken. If they are it's your problem).
I've been following this closely as I don't want to be forced to buy Government issued light bulbs of any kind.
ALL new bulbs are created to wear out, another case of "Planned Obsolescence", making products that don't last.
The original, simple incandescent can be made to last for a century as seen by the antique bulbs still in existence and working fine.
The simplicity in components, manufacturing, US job they provided (before all production was moved to China), simple packaging, lack of Mercury or need for a drive to a now needed local "Toxic Waste Dump" in every community to handle them, and the ease of disposal make these hands down the better choice.
A bill has been pushed through by years of lobbying from companies like GE who received billions in stimulus yet closed their light bulb factories in the US and moved production to China.
The government and partner, GE are trying to force us to buy what's now an inefficient, dangerous, expensive and inconvenient product by law.
LEDs could help but before we pitch the innocent light bulb, let's see how efficient we can make this wonderful 100 year old invention instead of trashing it!

Although I will welcome LED lighting, my experience with CFLs has been positive. Southern California Edison has made them very inexpensive (I bought 16 for $3 at Walmart). Most of mine warm up in seconds, give a pleasing light and with one or two exceptions have lasted a long time. My town collects hazardous waste so disposal is not a problem.

Cat was the first commenter to mention cradle to cradle, comprising not just hidden costs but big surprises like hazardous waste. I was wondering if any commenter would...

Is anyone surprised that there *was* a CFL debacle? This is a capitalist society, after all, where by definition truth in advertising is an oxymoron. Given a choice between the long-term, terribly abstract, and -- incredibly -- debatable fate of the planet or short-term profit, a good capitalist is going to choose short-term profit, even if s/he has to lie, steal, cheat, or paste the word "green" or "energy-saving" or "sustainable" on the product packaging. In fact, it has a vested interest in waste, non-standardization, new models coming out every month, and new technologies. All other things being equal, we're not going to stop expending too much energy until the lights go out. And how sad is that?

LED Lighting is a Life Enhancing Device (LED) technology for the planet Earth. Whole globe is under the threat of Global Warming. Energy is going to become a crisis sector. Whatever is happening in the LED sector is good for the planet, its fauna and flora. Next Fifty years will decide the destiny of this beautiful green planet. So the Government should give all support for the research and development in Energy sector and promote LED lighting at all levels. Industry should also come out with the creative way to solve the enrgy crisis. Think about the huge countries like India and China and Biggest Continent Africa. They too need proper support. We can make a living in the dark. Darkness is a curse on us.

Once I got over the high price of CFLs, I learned that the lighting industry was lying about the color of light CFLs produced. The package was marked that the color produced was "sunlight." Instead, the bulb produced ghastly, sepulchral blue light. The light made me feel terrible and sick.

The misleading color designation on the packaging may be the primary reason consumers are so unhappy with the CFL. The industry needs to re-evaluate the color temperature scale and honestly portray it on the packaging. Instead, the industry used the opinion of a color-blind male who had NO art training whatsoever.

I will not waste money on another CFL until the industry decides to quit lying about the color of light the bulb produces (let alone, solve the mercury content problem).

I look forward to LEDs. They already have a warm spot in my heart because I associate them with Christmas tree lights. But please convey to the LED industry that to make a successful inroad with consumers they MUST be honest with us about the color of light the bulbs produce.

I want to echo Maggie Mae's feelings about irresponsible marketing of CFLs and how consumer confidence has been poisoned when it comes to more efficient lighting. Except for outdoor lighting, I have become an unsuccessful promoter of CFLs in my own home because of repeat disappointments. This has happened despite significant efforts to educate myself on the finer points of color rendering, light temperature and lumen output.
One of the biggest problems seems to be that there is no effective standard that enables consumers to invest in a CFL with confidence that it will actually perform as advertised. Unless and untill this problem is solved, I think justified consumer skepticism will continue to deter efforts to save energy through more efficient lighting whether it's CFLs or LEDs.

IKEA will begin to phase out all incandescent light bulbs in their U.S. stores starting Aug 1, 2010. The Swedish home furnishing giant is the first major retailer to take this step. And so the shift begins... More details here: http://goo.gl/SzVA

As an industry advocate /Mfg rep for a leading SSL concern what I need to emphasize is that not
all Leds are good enough - I've been selling and
using Leds for 15 years- Main point know about quality - only buy quality - Any Led purchase
should be preceded by due Diligence- If a Led
has Fins its using Dc leds(Red Flag the drivers
rarely get past 20000 hours)LOOK FOR AC Leds.
If a lamp can't be dimmed - if it can't guarantee 5 years - ironclad - I wouldn't buy it
Other factors the lamps weight( heat sinks) or
the form factor -Cct choices / Cri soon to be replaced with the Color Quality Scale - the color rendering should be very high upper 80s or mid 90s , The lamps should be intelligent and
addressable-The ROI will justify the costs and
the use of Great SSL will reduce your consumption/ waste& your carbon footprint-SSLPro

I think this is the most thought out and articulate article on LED lights I have come across. It summarized a lot of the reasons certain segments of the population are so against the current legislation to enforce more energy efficient lighting. I am glad that the government is offering the L prize so that consumers will have a way to know they are getting what is in fact advertised. Thank you for the great article.
One serious flaw that I see in what is being sought, is that an incandescent 60 watt light bulb does not provide enough light for many of us to read and to function with that little light. I have always tried to get at least the lumens provided by a 100 w incandescent or even 150 w or greater incandescent bulb. 60 w may work for some people, but once you hit 40 years old, you really, really need greater light than a 60 w bulb can produce. The most commonly available CFLs only promise to equal 60 w lighting, so it makes them useless to many of us. The same could be true if the LEDs shoot for that low standard. I can appreciate why new tech would initially reach for a low standard, but I hope the lighting industry will realize that they sold a lot of 100 w incandescent lights and even a good number of 150w and 200w bulbs were purchased. Capturing a warm glow is far less important to many of us, than being able to read smaller print with available light resources or to be able to work with precision on finer and smaller tasks in needed light. So, I hope it will not be long before LEDs can replicate the lumens from 100 w and larger incandescents. I enjoy LEDs for what they offer in headlamps and flashlights. I would be happy to have LEDs in my home for saving energy and money and during summer offering light without heat.
Enter compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. It didn't take long for the bulbs to emerge from their niche status and go mainstream, hyped by a blitz of utility incentives, industry ads, and public service messages. Spurred on by high electricity prices, the public dutifully unscrewed their Edison-era bulbs and subbed in the new eco-alternatives. funny love poems