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