The next generation of cutting edge, energy efficient lighting is just about ready for the mass market, now that the price of LED (light emitting diode) technology has started to fall. In the latest development, lighting innovator Cree, Inc. has busted through the $10-per-bulb barrier with a line of low cost LED bulbs designed for home use. The real revolution, though, is the one that starts in your head once you realize that the light bulb of the future is a permanent fixture, not a throwaway.
Advantages of LED Bulbs
LED technology is based on the movement of electrons in semiconductor materials, creating a phenomenon called electroluminescence. That’s a different cup of tea altogether than standard incandescent bulbs, which use electricity to heat a filament until it glows (and eventually, burns out).
LEDs have been used for specialty lighting for decades, but their high internal temperature was one of the main obstacles to developing them as drop-in replacements for standard household light bulbs. That’s the hurdle that Cree and other lighting companies have been tackling. The result is an LED bulb with a low external temperature, which can screw into just about any existing household lighting fixture as a drop-in replacement for standard bulbs.
Aside from using less energy to get the same amount of light, LED bulbs have a couple of other money-saving potentials. With no filament, they last far longer than standard bulbs, so replacement costs are practically nil.
LEDs also emit much less heat than standard bulbs (which waste 90 percent of their energy in the form of heat), so if you’re in a warm climate, LEDs won’t work against your cooling system, whether it’s a passing breeze, fan, or air conditioner.
There’s More to a Low Cost LED Bulb Than Cost
Just a couple of days ago we mentioned that switching to energy efficient LED bulbs is one way to make a real difference in your household energy consumption. In the case of Cree’s new bulbs, you get the same amount of light while saving 84 percent on the energy used for lighting, so while the up-front cost is more the payback period is quick.
That’s cool, but conserving electricity is just part of the savings, and here’s where that revolution we mentioned comes in. Standard bulbs suck up a lot of energy in the form of replacement costs, which encompasses the whole lifecycle of manufacturing, shipping, selling, and disposing, as well as the energy you spend running out to the store for bulbs, getting up on a chair to unscrew your light fixtures to change your bulbs, and for good measure, going to the emergency room because you fell off a chair replacing a bulb.
LEDs don’t eliminate those costs entirely, but they almost do. On average, we Americans move more than ten times over our lifespans, which still leaves enough time within each move for a standard bulb to burn out. That’s not going to happen with LED bulbs. Cree’s bulbs, for example, are designed for 25,000 hours of use, about 25 times more than the typical standard bulb.
The result is that you move in, you screw in your LED bulbs, and you forget about them.
The Cost of a Low Cost LED Bulb
For now, Cree’s 40 watt drop-in replacement LED bulb is selling exclusively at Home Depot for $9.97 (yep, only three cents below $10, but still…). That’s going to do the most good in basements, garages, closets, hallways, and multi-bulb fixtures.
Cree also has two drop-in 60 watt models for $12.97 and $13.97.
Whatever Happened to the Light Bulb Wars?
With all the new advances in lighting technology, it’s hard to remember that, just about one year ago, the world (part of it, anyway) was in an uproar over the so-called Obama Administration “light bulb ban.”
You might recall that the “ban” was actually a 2007 law (for those of you keeping score at home, it was signed by President Bush, not President Obama) that established new energy efficiency standards for U.S. lighting manufacturers. The new standards are effectively phasing out production of highly inefficient bulbs over the next several years, which means buh-bye to the standard incandescent bulb, eventually.
Conveniently shoving the legislative record under the rug, a number of prominent conservative pundits, politicians, and 2012 presidential candidates tried to gin up outrage over the “ban,” framing it as an attack on free choice by President Obama. The lone exception was candidate Mitt Romney, who took a more original approach by describing the new efficiency standards as an attack by “Obama’s regulators” on the spirit of American innovation embodied by such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the Wright brothers.
Err… whatever. Anyway, short of raising four of the five aforementioned persons from the grave, it’s a good thing that a whole new generation of American innovators has stepped up to the plate, to help the U.S. quit leaning on 19th century lighting technology in a 21st century world.
Image: LED bulb courtesy of Cree, Inc.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.