Leapfrogging Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

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 (http://store.lsgc.com/).

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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