Since the United States adopted new lighting efficiency standards in 2012, light bulb manufacturers have been racing to develop products that use less energy but perform as well as power-hogging incandescents. For years, the most popular form of alternative illumination has been compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), but that may change. Today, GE Lighting announced that it plans to halt CFL production by the end of 2016 and will tout light-emitting diode bulbs (LEDs) as the preferred energy-efficient household product.
"We’re really at the tipping point where the proportion of LED sales will outweigh CFLs by the end of the year," says Daraius Patell, North America Consumer Lighting Leader at GE.
Industry wide, the breakdown for light bulb sales in 2015 was incandescents at 38%, halogen at 26%, CFLs at 15% percent, LEDs at 15%, and linear fluorescent at 6%. Last year, LED sales grew by more than 250% and the growth trend is predicted to continue. Internally, GE expects that during the first half of 2016, CFLs will outpace LED bulb sales and by the end of the year it will be close to 50/50 with LEDs. The company expects that there will still be some of its CFLs available in 2017 as the phase-out takes its course.
The great challenge with replacing incandescent bulbs has been achieving a warm quality of light—the color temperature—accommodating lighting fixtures, and dimmability. Manufacturers have steadily improved the technology behind incandescent alternatives—like CFL, LED, and halogen bulbs—but the road has been rocky. When the 2012 law was first introduced, some consumers scrambled to stockpile as many traditional incandescent light bulbs as possible because they perceived the energy-efficient alternatives as inferior.
While CFLs use, on average, 70% less energy than incandescent bulbs, they don't dim very well and often have an ugly coil shape. LEDs are about as efficient, but started out as being very expensive and bulky. Now their cost has gone down to be comparable with CFLs, and the design has become more sophisticated—there are smaller silhouettes and no weird cooling fins. Color temperature—meaning how yellow or blue the light shines, measured in degrees Kelvin—has also been a struggle. Most Energy Star–certified bulbs fall within the 2700K to 3000K range, which is the same as a soft white incandescent. GE has been able to tune its LEDs to this color level.
"The CFL consumer has always made a [performance] sacrifice to leverage energy efficiency," Patell says. "All the reasons why consumers didn’t like CFLs, LEDs solve; for all the reasons consumers loved CFLs, LEDs do better."
Bulb for bulb, LEDs last longer than CFLs. The product GE is pushing as the 60-watt replacement is called Bright Stik, which costs about $3 a pop at Home Depot. GE also argues that since consumers don't have to buy as many LED bulbs as CFLs over time, there's added efficiency from the manufacturing standpoint—the company can produce less. The U.S. Department of Energy calculated life-cycle assessments of CFLs and LEDs and found that LEDs also have a slight edge over CFLs in the environmental impact of manufacturing. In terms of disposal, however, LEDs are more akin to cell phones which means that they generate more impactful waste.
"The working environment is cleaner in an LED factory than a CFL factory," Patell says. "If you take this all the way down the supply chain to the workers on the line, LED is a better product. Throwing away an LED is no different than disposing of an iPhone or a calculator."
But energy efficiency and environmental impact is only part of the story. The move toward LEDs is in step with GE's other big push: smart lighting connected to the Internet of Things. The company sees this as the future of illumination. While its smart LED bulbs are still expensive—a starter pack of its C by GE bulbs is about $50—the price will likely go down in a few years time, like it did for LEDs.
"LEDs give us the real estate in the product to put in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi," Patell says. "It's really the vehicle to go connected."
Consumers embraced CFLs because the immediate benefit was clear: energy savings, which translate to cost savings. The bulb operated the same as it did before—switch on, switch off—it just looked uglier. But connected lighting is a different animal. It is in its nascent stages, and it is still a fairly complex—and frustrating—product to set up. While LEDs may pave the way for cheaper connected bulbs, lighting manufacturers will have to work harder to convince us that smart lighting is worth the extra effort and expense.