LEDs are brightening up, sparking a migration from old-school applications in electronics displays towards eventual ubiquity -- the light that shines for urban illumination.
The kicker is less the widespread dissatisfaction with compact fluorescents, variously dinged as unreliable and difficult to dispose of (some contain mercury). Rather, a new generation of high-brightness, white-light emitting LEDs -- first envisioned in patents in the late 1990s -- has finally dropped down the cost curve. At less than a dollar for some devices, it's become a viable option for everyday indoor and outdoor illumination.
Most important is the fact that LEDs can use 75 percent less energy than old-fashioned Edisons, according to the US Department of Energy. "About 20 percent of all the electricity used is for lighting," said Doug Bailey, vice president of marketing at Power Integrations. "By having efficient lighting, we can really make a dent in the overall usage of power."
But a bare-bones LED can't be plugged directly into a 120-VAC light socket. To see service there, it has to be outfitted with electronics to control its operation as well as a housing that mimics the common household incandescent.
Enter vendors like Power Integrations, which has created a go-to-market template for the technology. Power Integrations, a maker of power-supply controller chips, has partnered with LED manufacturer Cree Inc. to create what's called a reference design for an LED light bulb that can be plugged directly into a standard socket.
"These are pre-made examples of how you use the [controller] IC," said Bailey of the reference designs. "If we can show [a manufacturer] a nice working example, then they've got somewhere to start from in the development of their own products."
That product packs back-end electronics behind the LED, and squeezes all the componentry into a light-bulb-like package. Bailey said:
It's an aluminum casting and the LEDs are spread around because they're low-efficacy LEDs so they chuck out a lot of heat, and the driver is inefficient. What we brought with the new technology is, most of the structure is plastic, it's light. You can feel that it's a lower-cost manufacturing process. And then our driver is tuned to the high-voltage LED. That gives us high efficiency for our driver, high efficacy for the LED, low heat dissipation and that allows us to use plastic for what looks like a heat sink [the fins on the housing], but it's not a heat sink, it's decoration.
Printed circuit board of a 25W LED driver circuit, built around Power Integrations' LYT4217 switching integrated circuit, which combines power-factor correction and constant-current control into one device. (Source: Power Integrations)
All that componentry begs the question: Has our $1 LED morphed into a bulb that's no longer cost competitive? Au contraire says Bailey.
"This is going to bring us toward a $10 bulb," says Bailey, who adds that product availability shouldn't be far off. "I hope that next year, people will be able to buy low-cost [LED] lamps off the shelves at Home Depot and Lowe's."
Indeed, a floodlet of LED lights from a variety of vendors are already consumer-ready. Both Home Depot and Lowe's have options starting at $20. The LEDs have the potential to last 30,000 to 50,000 hours, further enhancing their economic appeal as incandescent replacements.
"Ten dollars seems to be the psychological barrier that the industry expects will lead to a jump in LED bulb sales," said Carol Lenk, an MIT-educated entrepreneur who holds several patents related to LED lighting. "Historically, back in the 90s, we saw CFL adoption rates jump about ten-fold with a similar price drop. Today, with more people paying attention to energy efficiency, we could arguably see a higher jump than that."
Price and Power Subsidies Yes, the price transition that is gradually happening will help make consumers see the benefits of both savings and efficiency. I am also seeing displays in building supply and hardware stores that include power company subsidy on certain lighting products. This includes some very decorative pieces -- much more appealing than original designs.
Re: An important consideration Jeremy, the impact of strikes in the 1970's in the UK and Ireland is pretty well documented and the subject of a great many TV documentaries. The root cause seems to have been a shift way from a labour led economy. In the UK this era had it's height with the advent of the 3 day working week as oil and coal, steel and good stopped flowing. Things got pretty bad and the goverment fell.
Re: Educating the consumer Agreed. Educating the consumers so they'll know what to expect and what they're getting will go a long way, especially when it comes to products like these that come with many marked advantages over alternatives that are currently preferred.
Re: Educating the consumer "Education" is a misnomer, IMO. It's not about education. That word has a negative connotation. After being stung, you need consumer buy-in. It's a sales process, not re-education.
We, as consumers, were educated about the wonders of CFLs. But after years of propaganda and subsidies, consumers saw terrible light quality, garish color rendition, flickering, premature death, and extra costs to remove or replace dimmers and lighted switches.
Even to the uneducated consumer, the CFL has a clear inability to drop in as a "replacement" for a generic incandescent bulb for things like outdoor lighting, garages, closed fixtures.
Sometimes money savings is less relevant that having a product that works. Sell the consumers a working product first. The cost justification is through money saved on short-term utility bills and long-term replacement schedules.
Re: An important consideration Are there articles or an account of what happened during that time period? I'm very interested in what the strike was, what caused it, and what the impact was on the citizenry.
Knowing that energy workers striking caused citizens to burn their furniture for warmth as an outcome, seems pretty intense, and such an event would be well to be remembered. Something the entire social system could learn from, I would suppose.
Re: Educating the consumer One of the main problems I'm seeing is the proliferation of different fittings. In my house we have ES, SES, BC, SBC, MR16, MR11, GU10 and G4 bulbs. Plus a few oddities! When I was a kid we only had BC bulbs on our 240v supply of course.
When we first turned on our new kitchen lights we realised we had 1kw of tungsten lighting.. The LEDs in there now use around 100w and feel good.
Educating the consumer The thing that I think is missing from the LED market right now is educating the client. It's the same problem with solar. Yes, it looks shockingly expensive when the casual consumer just happens to see it at the local hardware store. prohibitively expensive even. But what if instead of advertising the cost, manufacturers advertised the cost savings. So say, instead of saying: LED light bulb: $10! Why not: "LED light bulb $10, lasts 10x longer than regular $5 bulb. That makes sense and people can understand the savings. If people understand that by buying marginally more expensive bulbs they will be significantly cutting down on their energy bills and also replacing those bulbs less frequently, they will not balk as much at the prospect of buying them.
Rule number one for any manufacturer of a new/innovative product. educate your client.
light and shade Having sold LEDs at my last job in renewables sales work I have to say LEDs are great, I can't argue with that. However where I live we have orange lamps on our street which are easy on the eye and don't keep me up because the light is not harsh like the white light of LEDs. I am worried because they are starting to replace them with the LEDs and the light is so garish. I think that filters are going to be needed to ensure that the perception of 'warm light' is still something we can enjoy. And i haven't even mentioned the problem of light pollution.
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