LED There Be Light

by Richard T. Stuebi

As some of my long-time readers may know, I have never been a truly ardent fan of compact fluorescent lighting (CFL). Why?

1. Probably most importantly to me, in my experience with CFLs, I haven’t been satisfied with their start-up characteristics. They take a little while to “warm up” to full luminescence, and until then, the light seems very sickly to me. It actually makes me a bit nauseous. I know that better quality (i.e., more costly) CFLs perform better than cheaper generics, but even CFLs from General Electric (NYSE: GE) that I’ve bought still don’t turn on as well as I have come to expect from four decades of living with incandescents.

2. Except for some new (and considerably more expensive) products, CFLs generally don’t work with dimmers. I once found this out the hard way — snap, crackle, pop. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the light circuits in my house are on dimmers, and as a result I continue to run incandescents on them.

3. It is becoming more well-known that CFLs contain mercury, and hence their disposal is a real issue. Even worse, if one were to break, the release of mercury represents a significant risk — at best a big clean-up nuisance.

4. CFLs aren’t cheap. True, CFL prices are coming down to become closer to the levels of old/inefficient incandescents, but they are still substantially more costly. For lights that are rarely used, the extra investment doesn’t make much sense to me, as the energy actually saved is small.

So, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the emergence of LED (light-emitting-diode) products for consumer application. I like the quality of LED light, and LEDs don’t have the mercury issue, so it seems like the superior long-term lighting solution.

I’ve been told that household LED lighting is still many years away, but at least some products are trickling into the marketplace. For instance, see EarthLED Lightbulbs, which are available at Think Geek. Clearly, they are still a niche item for the early adopters, as they cost $60-100 per unit, but at least their emergence into the market now puts consumer LED lighting on the gameboard, hopefully on a quicker path of cost reduction as learning curve and scale production effects are achieved.

Since LEDs have virtually infinite lifetimes, in the future, there will no longer be a need to make lamps with removable bulbs in sockets. Savvy marketers out there should begin working to overturn the old paradigm of reusable lamp/disposable bulb, making way for LED lamp fixtures that are inherently designed to capitalize on the unique and compelling advantages offered by LED lighting.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

7 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You think we should create the situation where if the LEDs burn out, people have to throw out the entire fixture and buy a brand new one?Isn't this type of thing already a major barrier to sustainability in our existing system?

  2. Richard T. Stuebi
    Richard T. Stuebi says:

    Dear Anonymous,Philips is on record justifying an estimate of LED lifetime at 60,000 hours. (See http://www.philipslumileds.com/pdfs/WP12.pdf) 60,000 hours is nearly 7 years of 24/7/365 operation. I personally know of no household lights that are used anywhere near full-time, and indeed most household lights are on probably less than 25% of the hours in a day. At 25% operation, the LED therefore ought to last nearly three decades. Chances are pretty good that the structural aspects of the lamp (the stem, the base, etc.) would have failed by then (e.g., broken during a move or in some minor household mishap). I agree with your comment in the context of commercial lighting applications, which are used more intensively. For commercial lighting, it may well make economic sense to design replaceability into the product. But, for household lighting, there is no point in suboptimizing the design of an LED-based lamp just to enable bulb replaceability. And, my blog post was focusing on household, not commercial, uses of lighting.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    CFL's generally have rated lives five to ten times as long as incandescent bulbs, so they are slightly cheaper, rather than more expensive.The lifetime energy cost of running either kind of bulb is several times higher than the cost of the bulb itself, so CFL's really do save a lot of money.I agree that CFL's don't make much sense for a closet light, attic light, or refrigerator light.The dimmable CFL's produce a hideous, gray light when dimmed, so they don't seem to be a useful option.Your idea of throwing away the LED light with the light fixture doesn't work for me. If the bulb is expensive and lasts for thirty years, I want to take it out of the lamp and use it elsewhere when I throw the lamp away.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Many good LED products are already available in the market, check out the Cree/LLF LR6 downlight product, for example. Yes, they're expensive relative to an incandescent can, but as you note you'll put these in and forget them for the next 25 years. Relative to a $10,000 granite countertop or a $5,000 stove, putting these in your kitchen is cheap and the price is dropping fast. They are definitely not "years away" from becoming common, in any case.Another point of note, because heat management is very important for these products they typically contain high amounts of aluminum in their heat sinks, which means a high disposal value, which will encourage recycling. How many CFL or incandescent bulbs are recycled?A final thought, these products come as complete, integrated units. Do the people that express concern over having to replace the entire unit express similar concerns over having to replace their entire cell phones or big screen TVs? How many cell phones will a typical user replace over the next 25 years? Will these be recycled?Time to start thinking out of the box. LEDs are going to change everything we think about lighting.

  5. Eco Pirate
    Eco Pirate says:

    Converting to LED lighting is a current popular movement which I believe households and businesses should be embracing. New government regulations are forcing out traditional halogen lighting and making CFLs and LEDS the only possible future light sources. My partner and I did extensive research into both options and found LED lighting to be superior over CFLs s they offer a much better light quality. We selected the new D900 downlight which is universally dimmable, pre assembled and offers the same amount of light as the 50W halogen bulb. The payback period is only 2 years for homes and 1 year for businesses. We purchased them for an Australian company called Brightgreen. http://www.brightgreen.net.au

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