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Leapfrogging Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Posted by: John Carey on May 23, 2007

Compact fluorescents are hot. Al Gore wants you to use them to save energy, and fight global warming. Wal-Mart aims to sell 100 million a year by the end of 2007. Australia and Canada even plan to phase out the more inefficient incandescent light bulbs by early next decade.

The new fluorescents do use a ¼ of the electricity of incandescent — and they last a lot longer than the old style bulbs. So even though they cost more to buy, they end up costing less than 25% as much over their lifetime.

But they do have problems. They contain trace amounts of mercury. Many can’t be used with dimmers.

That’s why I wonder if the long-term future for lighting lies not with fluorescents, but with LEDs (light-emitting diodes).

These solid state devices have already become more efficient than compact fluorescents, with more efficiency gains to come. And they typically last up to six times longer than fluorescents. They’ve already become widespread everywhere from auto brake lights to traffic lights.

But now we are starting to get a glimpse of a more ubiquitous future for LEDs. Down in North Carolina, the city of Raleigh has teamed up with Cree, Inc. (Nasdaq: CREE) and Lighting Science Group Corporation (OTCBB: LSGP) to create what they grandiosely call an "LED City.”

The ‘city’ now consists of one floor of a municipal building parking garage. That’s where the city has installed LEDs are made by Cree and fashioned into light fixtures by Lighting Science. But the benefits are already clear: a 40% percent energy savings over the old high-pressure sodium lighting, which themselves are relatively efficient. And the bright white light from the LEDs is a big improvement over the dim yellow of the sodium lights. LEDs are ideal for garages, streetlights, warehouses, and other locations where lights are left on for many hours at a time.

I’ve been testing LEDs myself. I put two Lighting Science flame tip bulbs in the fixtures on my front porch, and floodlights over the kitchen sink and on a stairway landing (

The downside? They’re expensive. They’re not as bright as I expected. But they do offer enough light. They work with dimmers. And they’re perfect as the lights to leave on when illumination in the house is needed, since they last for 50,000 hours (10 years at 12 hours a day), and sip power. I’ve already noticed a drop in electricity bills.
Prices will only come down as economies of scale and improvements kick in. For other locations in my house, I plan to skip the compact fluorescents and jump to LEDs.

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Reader Comments

Jessi Hempel

May 23, 2007 12:54 PM

About a year ago, I replaced the lights in my home with them, and I was dismayed to find that the light was nowhere near as pleasant. The rooms felt duller, especially the bathroom. Make-up application became a challenge. And though I hoped I'd adjust, I never did. When I moved, I went back to the old bulbs, abeit with a bit of guilt.

steve baker

May 23, 2007 01:39 PM

But John, is the light pretty?

J A Ginsburg

May 23, 2007 03:47 PM

Finally...A Green Biz blog!

Although LEDs and CFLs clearly save money and are admirably efficient (I just installed my very first), some of the dramatic emissions-reduction claims made on their behalf seem murkier. *Any* light bulb, including an incandescent, would be emissions-free if powered by a green power source. The big problem isn't so much in the bulb as at the power plant...

Since central power plants have to generate more power than is actually needed to make sure enough power is always available, as well as to make up for the 7%+ that's lost in transmission, a lot of people would need to switch to CFLs or LEDs to begin to make a dent.

Even something such as dramatic as Australia's bid to switch entirely to CFLs can only do so much as long as the country remains reliant on coal powered plants.

But enough depressing thoughts... Here's to clean green distributed generation, a cheap bright light at the end of every tunnel, and a lovely new blog!

Jess Sand

May 23, 2007 07:56 PM

I replaced every bulb in my near-windowless graphic design office with compact fluorescent, and I love the light. I find it very warm and rich. I am skeptical of those who claim otherwise, as there are plenty of options on the market these days.


May 24, 2007 05:53 AM

The Compact Flourescent Lamp (CFL) offers upto 80%savings over incandescent lamp, offering various color temperatures. Many OEM products non-branded from unknown origins, have problems for rated life which averages 10,000 hours. Lets first develop what is available in plenty, to global standardisation on lumens per watt, safety, MTBF which averaged 10,000 hours. Still we have to illuminate the dark patches on earth. Illuminate darkness from the developing world with less energy, improve electronics. Cheers Haroon

Joe Machek

May 24, 2007 08:17 AM

LED light sources will definitely have a big impact in the future, but for now, be skeptical of their manufacturer's claims of efficiency compared to other light sources such as compact fluorescents and halogens. The standards are still evolving. Also, white LED light may look great compared to a yellow source such as high pressure sodium, but they are no where near as pleasant as the better compact fluorescents and halogens. Also, the author's statement that compact fluorescents can't be used with dimmers is not true. There are many dimmable bulbs on the market and others that are dimmable via a separate ballast in the light fixture housing.


May 24, 2007 05:01 PM

Contrary to JA Ginsburg's claim that "any" lightbulb is emissions free is connected to a "green" energy source: Actually "no" lightbulb is emissions free. Making the lightbulb and the photovoltaic or wind turbines all require lots of energy and emissions, including many toxic materials to be dealt with in the mining and manufacturing processes. So the longer lived the product, and the less energy it uses, the more "green" it is.

Matthew Crawley

May 24, 2007 08:07 PM

The LED bulbs are available in different color tempatures - including warm white similar to incandescent. The warmer colors are a little more expensive than the stark white that is common in LED flashlight bulbs.

J A Ginsburg

May 25, 2007 12:49 PM

That's a very good point, Howard. You are absolutely right: more efficient bulbs are an intinsically better idea.

But when it comes to reducing GHG's, some of the claims, such this one from the EPA's website seem a little over the top:

"If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, it would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars annually."

This factoid was dutifully quoted all over the place on Earth Day, from Oprah to TreeHugger. But for me it raised a lot of questions:

1) Since central power plants have to create more power than needed to assure availability, what would it take -- how many CFLs -- to significantly reduce the amount of power generated? Even in Australia, where they plan to phase out incandescents completely, GHG gains will be limited by their dependence on coal. At least half the electrcity generated by coal is lost as heat or along transmission lines.

2) re emissions -- are we assuming a coal-powered central power plant? How would the calculations work for a natural gas powered plant. Or (not my favorite, but CO2-free) nuclear? Or what if some clean, green distributed generation were part of the power equation?

3) H'mmmm -- the annual emissions of 800,000 cars. Are we talking Hummers or hybrids? What's the mpg and the average annual mileage?

I am all for efficient light bulbs, but am concerned that we keep a wholistic view of the problem and realize that better light bulbs alone can only get us so far.


December 2, 2007 02:37 PM

Am I the only one who notices (and is bothered by) the on/off cycling of fluorescent bulbs (includind CFCs)? I can put up with it at work, but at home I'd like to relax without that awful "buzzing" feeling I get when I'm around fluorescents.

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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