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An Illuminating Article

As most of you readers know, the lighting industry is undergoing a revolution, stemming from the phase-out of inefficient incandescent bulbs as directed by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007.

A recent article in Distributed Energy by David Engle entitled “Quest for Light” provides a succinct overview of the domino effect on technological advancement to develop good substitutes for the old incandescents.

It’s well-known that compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) for household use has been somewhat of a bust, between the perceived inferiority of the light quality and disposal concerns due to mercury in the devices.

It’s also generally believed that LED lighting technologies will be the big wave to unroll in the lighting sector in the coming decade:  super-efficient, with tailorable light quality.  The big issue is cost:  current LED bulbs for residential application are generally over $20, but according to this presentation by Fred Welsh of Radcliffe Advisors at a 2011 U.S. Department of Energy symposium, the costs of LED lighting is projected to fall by an order of magnitude in the next decade.

A big issue for LED lighting advancement is heat management:  current LEDs produce a lot of heat, so many innovators are working on novel ways to either reduce the heat output associated with LEDs, or to dissipate the heat produced by LEDs more effectively/cheaply.

What’s less well-known is that, as Engle reports, “practical elimination of incandescents was envisioned [by EISA], but it is not happening.”  Why?  At least one reason is that a class of more efficient incandescent bulbs called “2x” – meaning twice as efficient as old incandescents – has been released, and these comply with the requirements of EISA. 

All these factors suggest a fatal blow for the CFL:  a technology whose time apparently never came.  (I’ve got several in my drawer at home – I hate ‘em.)  However, notwithstanding the failure of CFLs for household use, fluorescent lights probably still have a viable market in commercial applications, given their combination of low costs and high efficiencies. 

As Engle also points out, it’s not just illumination technology that’s advancing:   lighting controls is also a hotbed of innovation.  In some ways, improved lighting control is to compensate for consumer indifference, ambivalence, or unawareness of modulating illumination to meet frequently-varying lighting needs.  Perhaps 20% energy savings or more can be achieved with better lighting controls.  Since lighting represents about 13% of U.S. electricity demand, that’s a lot of kwh – and associated dollars and emissions – that can be saved with more advanced lighting controls.

If he could see us now, Thomas Edison would probably be discouraged to observe that most homes still use basically the same technology he invented in 1879, over 130 years ago.  At least he might feel a little better knowing that we’re finally getting around to making his creation obsolete.