Energy-Efficient Lighting Options
Compact fluorescents, LEDs, and halogens prepare for their turn in the spotlight
New Green Lighting
The Incandescent Lightbulb has enjoyed a pretty good run. Introduced to the world on December 31, 1879, by Thomas Alva Edison, this miracle of Victorian ingenuity faced few competitors and has remained a cheap, reliable source of artificial light for well over a century.
But its long tenure as our default lighting choice may soon be coming to an end. As an increasingly worried nation starts to think seriously about how to slow the emission of greenhouse gases, lighting is emerging as one of the chief targets. California and New Jersey are considering banning the sale of incandescent bulbs altogether. Megaretailer Wal-Mart wants to tip the mainstream consumer scales toward compact fluorescents (CFLs), vowing to sell 100 million of them this year.
Other new lighting options are starting to turn up on store shelves, including high-efficiency halogen bulbs and the Holy Grail of green lighting, the LED. Here's a look at what's available now, and how these new products will affect the quality—and the cost—of lighting your home.
When it comes to green alternatives, the light at the end of the tunnel might just be the LED, or light-emitting diode. Unlike incandescents, LEDs don't have filaments to burn out, and, more important, they don't waste the majority of their energy output on useless heat. Instead, they illuminate via the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material.
"LEDs have the hugest potential for the residential market," says lighting designer Nancy Clanton, founder of Colorado-based Clanton & Associates, a company specializing in sustainable lighting design. "Where CFLs fail, LEDs will surely take over. And color? Oh, my gosh—you can pretty much dial up any color you want with an LED."
So far, LEDs have been used commercially in dashboard indicator lights and traffic lights. But a few companies are starting to produce them for the home. Dallas-based Lighting Science, for example, offers LED bulbs that resemble incandescents in appearance and can be screwed into any standard socket. While light quality and color are crisp and white, the bulbs aren't nearly as bright as incandescents and, at least for now, are better suited for use in desk lamps or reading lights. Other companies, such as C. Crane and Ledtronics, are also offering LEDs, but the big guys—namely GE, Philips, and Sylvania—are about five years away from introducing their own versions.
"The battle we all face right now is cost," says Lighting Science president Ron Lusk. "The efficiency is great, but they are still cost-prohibitive." Indeed, his company's 30-watt "warm white" bulb costs almost $50. But Lusk is quick to point out that it costs 90 percent less to run than an incandescent and can last up to 50,000 hours, compared with a CFL's 10,000 hours and an incandescent's 1,200. "From a payback standpoint, it's almost free," says Lusk, adding, rather convincingly, "I truly believe that LEDs are the future of lighting."
Unlike CFLs, with their trademark squiggle, LEDs have yet to develop an iconic shape. Some look like traditional incandescents, while others, with their clear glass and exposed diodes, look like something out of 1950s sci-fi. The aluminum fins on some LEDs are heat sinks, which keep the bulbs cool to the touch.
Until that future arrives, the darlings of the green lighting world are the cheap, superefficient, and readily available CFLs. They use two-thirds less energy than incandescents and last up to 10 times longer. Each incandescent bulb you replace with a compact fluorescent can save you $30 on energy bills over its lifetime. Best of all, CFLs cost little more than incandescents—about $3 to $5 for a 26-watter (equivalent to a 100-watt incandescent). New three-way and dimmable versions run $10 to $14.
If you haven't tried one of these lately, you might be surprised by what you see. "A lot has happened to the CFL in the past five years," says Kim Freeman, of GE's Consumer and Industrial division. "The light quality is better and not nearly as harsh. It's much more like an incandescent." Other chronic problems, such as nonstandard base sizes, have been eliminated, too.
Still, CFLs aren't perfect. The biggest knock—and the one that's got environmentalists bothered—is that they contain mercury, meaning they have to be disposed of as hazardous waste to avoid contaminating our landfills and water supplies. Still, if the bulbs are disposed of properly, the benefits outweigh the risks. After all, since the mercury in CFLs creates more efficient lights, we save power, thereby reducing emissions from power plants—including mercury.
The halogen bulb—basically an incandescent infused with halogen gas—has long been a popular alternative to traditional bulbs. Halogens burn twice as long, use 10 percent less energy, and produce a clean, bright-white light. But they still burn hot and, like their predecessors, waste a lot of their energy on needless Btus.
GE, Philips, and Sylvania are all rolling out new halogen bulbs that are more efficient than their previous offerings and, on average, last about three times as long as incandescents. GE's Reveal bulbs last around 2,250 hours and cost $4 to $5; Philips's Halogena Energy Saver bulbs last 3,000 hours and cost about $5 a pop; and Sylvania's Capsylite A-Line halogens last up to 3,500 hours and cost $7 to $9.
Even the standard incandescent is headed for a makeover. "We are going to work continually on more energy-efficient incandescents," says Sylvania's Jennifer Dolan. The company just came out with the E-Logic bulb, which uses slightly less energy and lasts 50 percent longer than a standard incandescent. One-third smaller than a regular bulb, it comes packaged four to a box. (Eco-bonus: The packages are made of recycled paperboard.) Within a couple of years, GE promises an incandescent that will be nearly as energy-efficient as its CFLs.
"A lot of people still like incandescents," says Freeman. "It's simply another consumer choice." So no matter which type of illumination you prefer, at least in terms of energy efficiency it's clear that bulb manufacturers are beginning to see the light.