TECHNOLOGY:

Market for more efficient light bulbs moves on as House vote fizzles

It has the same silhouette as a standard light bulb: a white hot-air balloon with a silver, spiral basket. However, on closer inspection, the bulb itself is just a small part of the shape of the LED light. Along the sides are eight curved metal fins, cradling the bulb, designed to cool the device.

The bulb is General Electric Co.'s entry into the field of light-emitting diode, or LED, lamps, devices that use a solid-state semiconductor to illuminate the world around them. Now, after a failed House vote yesterday to repeal new efficiency standards for light bulbs, the future for LED lamps is a little brighter.

At $20 to $50 a pop, LED bulbs are some of the most expensive light sources on the market, especially when compared to the more common incandescent bulbs, invented by Thomas Edison in 1879. Current versions use a tungsten filament and can cost as little as 50 cents per bulb, but the cost of the electricity needed to light them ranks at the high end of the spectrum of bulbs coming into the market.

Manufacturers expect that sticker shock over the price of new bulbs will soon change due to economies of scale, efficiency regulation and greater competition. With an operating life on the order of decades, power consumption a mere shard of that in incandescent bulbs, and a warm, inviting glow, LED bulbs could come to dominate the consumer lighting market and find their way into your light sockets.

"LEDs are the lighting of the future," said Randall Moorhead, vice president for government affairs at Philips Electronics North America Corp. He said that though the initial cost is high, LED bulbs would save the user money over the course of their lives: "As more of these light bulbs are manufactured and competition becomes more intense, the prices are going to go down." The improvements will come not so much from the technology itself, but from reducing the costs of production and assembly, said Moorhead. "They are going to be like flat-screen TVs in terms of cost trajectory."

However, legislative incentives for these new bulbs hung precariously on the "BULB Act" (H.R. 2417), proposed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), which sought to repeal lighting provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007.

Approved during the George W. Bush administration, EISA established light bulb standards requiring manufacturers to develop 27 percent more efficient incandescent bulbs by 2014. Barton and other House Republicans cited the law as an example of government overstepping its boundaries and limiting choices for consumers.

The measure was brought to the floor of the House yesterday under suspended rules, meaning the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass. With 233 members of Congress voting in favor, 193 against, one voting present, the BULB Act failed to meet the threshold to pass. However, the bill could still be reintroduced under normal procedure.

2007 law sparked innovation

The prospect of repealing EISA bulb standards concerned Jeffrey Harris, senior vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit group that advocates energy efficiency around the world. He said that the law has already helped spur innovation in lighting.

"From what we hear, the legislation has been a significant boost [to lighting research]," said Harris. "What it does is take away from the market the cheapest to buy, but most expensive to use [light source]. That is the incandescent bulb."

Indeed, in response to the new standards, manufacturers like Philips, GE, and Osram Sylvania devised improved incandescent bulbs that have a halogen capsule around the filament. The devices are 30 percent more efficient than conventional bulbs and typically sell for $1.49 per unit.

As further incentive to improve lighting, in 2008, the Department of Energy also instituted the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, an award of $10 million to anyone who can produce a bulb nearly identical to a standard 60-watt incandescent bulb in every way except for power consumption, which is to be below 10 watts.

As a result, manufacturers have spent more resources developing alternatives like LED lights, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and more efficient incandescents. "I believe that standards are continuing to drive innovations and bringing prices down," said Harris.

Even if the United States repealed the new lighting standards, the rest of the world will still improve in lighting, said Harris.

Brett Sharenow wants to make sure Americans will continue to innovate in lighting. Sharenow is the chief strategy officer and chief financial officer at Switch Lighting. The company is a venture capital-funded startup in San Jose, Calif., that will release American-made LED bulbs with lighting characteristics that make them more like incandescent bulbs than CFLs.

Switch entered the fray among giants like Philips, a Dutch corporation, and Osram Sylvania, whose parent company is German.

To Switch, it makes no difference whether or not the lighting standards are repealed, since its product is superior, Sharenow said. "We don't need it, and we don't want it," said Sharenow. The company's bulb design saves more than 85 percent in energy consumption over incandescents in the course of its service. The company has no other lighting product to develop its new bulb from, unlike manufacturers like GE, and will release a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb this year, with other models to follow.

Working toward a warm glow and tiny energy costs

Nonetheless, Sharenow understands that the marketplace may be skeptical about LED lamps: "Consumers got burned on CFLs. A lot of the CFLs that came out early were garbage. Some of them touted 10,000-hour lifetimes and burned out after 1,000 hours. Each time you turn on and off a CFL, you reduce its lifetime."

"The color was also an issue," he said, pointing out that many buyers reverted to incandescents after they found the harsh, white glow of CFLs to be aesthetically displeasing. CFLs usually weren't dimmable and took time to fully illuminate. In addition, CFLs leak hazardous mercury vapor when they crack.

Switch's bulbs were designed to emulate the warm glow of an incandescent. In addition, its lights are certified to be 100 percent cradle-to-cradle, meaning every component of the bulb can be fully recycled or biodegradable. The question right now, though, is: Who will pay $20 for a light bulb?

Sharenow said that the bulb would be useful for fixtures that are tedious and difficult to access, since LED bulbs have a continuous operating life of 25,000 hours, or more than two decades with normal use, making the added cost a convenience fee.

GE, in its promotional literature, suggested that consumers replace just their most frequently used bulbs with LEDs, claiming that 30 percent of light sockets account for 67 percent of energy usage.

The savings would be seen more readily by commercial users, like stores and offices, which tend to use lights continuously for long periods of time. The payoff for a commercial user may come in as little as six months, whereas a home user may have to wait more than a year to see a tangible payback, said Sharenow. Yet as time progresses, the prices will drop and will improve the cost-effectiveness of this technology.

"It's going to be a while before we see people buying [LEDs] in large numbers," said Harris. "I don't think it will be long before we see solid-state light bulbs become much more efficient. Very long-life products are very attractive [to consumers]."

Another issue is getting consumers to understand what they are actually getting, since power usage and light output are not directly linked anymore. "What counts here is not watts, it's lumens. We're getting more lumens for fewer watts," said Harris.

New labeling standards from the Federal Trade Commission, due to go into effect later this month, will list power consumption and light output, as well as the light's color and range of illumination.

However, a concerted consumer education effort must take place before these numbers are useful to most people, said Harris. Consumers must also understand the trade-offs between cost and efficiency. "A 50-cent bulb is a several-dollar commitment in energy costs," said Harris.

Harris suggests that the best model to encourage widespread LED adoption would be for Congress to first encourage federal agencies to buy the bulbs, thereby infusing the market with demand and providing manufacturers the volume to reduce costs. Eventually, consumers will learn that they can continue to do what they're doing, but do it with less. "We're going to see a gradual market acceptance," said Harris.

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