Beyond compact fluorescents: LED lighting crossing the chasm


Compact fluorescent lamps are all the rage these days. Praised for their efficiency and ecofriendly pedigree, they are becoming an icon in the struggle to green America. CFL light bulbs are about 4 times as efficient as the average incandescent bulb in converting electricy into usable light and they have 5-8K hours life expectancy compared to just 500-2K for incandescents. Unlike hybrid vehicles which remain more of an ecological commitment, CFL can pay for its higher initial purchase cost in a matter of months. The low power usage creates an interesting dilemma for packing: traditionally light bulbs are labelled for their power consumption in watts, instead of their light output which would be lumens. (About as misleading as car commercials talking horsepower, as if drivers could telepathically sense power. The only experience of engine output is acceleration. Something akin to 0-60 times is a better indication, which has as much to do with weight as engine– that 8000lb SUV isn’t going anywhere fast. ) When the incandescent is labelled 100 and the equivalent CFL sitting next to it on the shelf only needs 26 watts for the same brightness, it may well be mistaken for the inferior product; dangers of confusing effort with results.

CFL is also a great example of a disruptive technology crossing the chasm into broad adoption. It is no news that florescent lights are far more energy efficient. Experts have been praising their virtues since 1980s and they are standard in industrial applications– office buildings, hospitals, garages. That assocation with sterile environments and dreary spaces, coupled with memories ghostly-white pale light buzzing/flickering is exactly the reason they never took off in the consumer space. If there is a white florescent lamp installed, chances are it’s because the power bill is payed for by somebody other than the occupants of that space. Improvements in bulb technology helped reduce address these inconveniences, while mixing multiple phosphors allowed a closer approximation of tungsten bulbs in color correctness. Finally the form factor changed: instead of massive tubes destined for wide ceiling fixtures, CFLs were ready to compete with ordinary bulbs, using the same E26 base and taking up about as much space.

As for proof that it worked: WalMart, the Arkansas based giant retailer trying to clean up its corporate image in the wake of a series of negative PR stories, announced its commitment to take CFLs mainstream and heavily promote them in stores. At least the reaction to this move was overwhelming positive, unlike the mixed reception for an earlier decision to feature organic food– apparently the pundits are not equally worried that WalMart may corrupt the essence of “CFL-ness.” Mass CFL adoption promise to make a sizable impact on US carbon emissions. 50% of electricity in the US is generated by coal, a fuel more carbon intensive than oil, not withstanding latest attempt by coal industry to bill itself as the clean solution for elliminating foreign oil dependence.

But as CFLs are becoming mainstream, the next disruptive innovation is already entering its own early-adopter stage. It has been known for a long time that LEDs are even more efficient at turning watts into lumens. But their relatively low output made it very difficult to use them for replacing. Like any other disruptive technology, it nibbled at the edges and niche markets instead: first bicycle lights, followed by tail-lights on automobiles (where LED reliability translates into fewer tickets for law enforcement to write over brake-lights), then household applications in flashlights. Solid-state lighting is now appearing in form factors ready to compete against standard incandescent and CFL bulbs. TreeHugger points out two new models, featuring as many as 150 LEDs arranged in 360 degree layout using only 9 watts to replace 70W incandescent bulb. (That’s 2x factor improvement over CFL.) As with any early-adopter technology they are too expensive for broad adoption now. The two online retailers referenced in the article are charging $60, compared to ~$5 for CFL and a fraction of that for tungsten. But there may be applications where it is the only solution, such as living off-grid or emergency lighting from back-up source. But the writing is on the wall: chances are LED-based bulbs will become cost efficient and eventually competitive for household lighting, in the same way they have taken over flashlight applications. Looking at the $60 bulb it is hard to see that, but then again CFLs date back to the 1980s– that’s two decades from availability to WalMart shelves.

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