LEDs: Fighting Global Warming, One Bulb at a Time

Now that it has cooled off in California, or at least it had until my wife saw our power bill for the month of July, it seems like it might be a good time to talk conservation, and touch on some of the technologies that can be used to reduce our use of fossil fuels as well as keep our power bills from resembling the national debt.

If you want to see how much power you are wasting pick up a little device called the “Watts Up.” This gadget measures your power usage and tells you how much an appliance is costing you. It’s a very scary device but it can help put you on the road to significant savings and only costs about US$110. There is also a Pro version for $50 more which actually does ROI analysis on new energy efficient appliances. This can be a great tool to help justify that new LCD TV or any new Energy Star appliance.

Once you’re satisfied that you’ve found out where you are pouring money down the drain you may want to look at three technologies that can help with dramatically reducing the need for electrical power: solar panels, fuel cells, and LED lighting. I’ll discuss each in turn over the next few months, but, since I just finished an in-depth review of LED lighting, I’ll start with that topic.

The Future of Lighting

I first got interested in LED lighting while looking at the specs on flat panel displays. With LED displays the only part that wears out in less than 10 years is the lighting source. The prototype LED-lit displays I’ve seen recently are vastly brighter and use a lot less power than the alternatives currently in the market. The problem is, they are also substantially more expensive. As a result, we won’t see many LED-lit displays until next year because most consumers won’t be able to afford them. However, it turns out that LED’s are advancing on a Moore’s Law-like curve and they are getting closer to the point were many of us could begin using them broadly.

There are a number of advantages LEDs have but the first, for those who are interested in preventing global warming, is their efficiency. A typical incandescent light bulb has a one- to two-year service life, doesn’t like to be turned on and off, and converts a whopping 95 percent of its energy into heat.

Now, as you walk around in 100 degree plus weather and pay a small fortune to cool your house and business this summer it is probably not terribly comforting to know that the majority of the money you’re paying for lighting is going toward making things hotter.

You may think the situation is a lot better with fluorescent lights. True, these are power- and heat-wise, but they too are incredibly inefficient when compared to LEDs, which not only convert almost all of their energy into light but also only put light were you need it. This creates an efficiency multiplier. This is also why the authors of a paper entitled “U.S. Competitiveness in Solid State Lighting” were able to conclude that, were the U.S. to move aggressively to LED lights, the nation could save $130 billion in power costs by 2025.

Efficiency is one of the primary reasons LEDs are used by the Light Up the World Foundation. This charitable organization takes LEDs and combines them with small solar panels to provide light to underprivileged areas that lack power infrastructure, so that the people who live there don’t have to live in the dark. Power savings is partially why LEDs were also extensively used in designing the new Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas and the new Boeing flagship 787.

Design Freedom

There is another reason LEDs were used at the Wynn Hotel and in the 787 and that is design flexibility. This feature was showcased at the Turin Olympics in 2006 where the use of LEDs was unprecedented, and where they helped make the visual events, like the opening, so spectacular.

LEDs are small and can be used in ways that are simply impractical for other forms of lighting. Used in conjunction with fiber-optics they can create low cost light sculptures, for example.

Because the lights have a 10- to 20-year service life not only can they lead to substanial savings on maintenance (the primary reason most stoplights have used LEDs for years), they can be put in places that are relatively hard to reach because they only have to be replaced infrequently when compared to other lighting types.

LEDs are particularly impressive with regard to lighting effects. One product in particular, the Enbryten Effects light from Permlight (about $1,000), can emulate the light reflected from a fireplace or from water and the effect is incredibly realistic.

Beware of LED Bulb Replacement Products

As part of LED research I bought over $1,000 worth of LED light bulbs to see if any would meet my own personal needs. Most were too expensive and too dim for general use, but some worked reasonably well for house exterior and hallway lighting. No light bulb replacement products worked well for reading lights or other areas in need of bright light.

The three light bulbs that worked the best were the 60 LED Floodlight, the 72 LED Spotlight, and the LED light bulb, which may be used it for exterior home lighting. The spotlights and floodlights themselves are about $44 each and the light bulbs are around $30.

To give you an idea of the savings possible with these products, the spotlights pull 8 watts of power and the light bulb pulls 3 watts. All of these products use LEDs that are relatively old when compared to the bulbs that Cree, the leading U.S. LED manufacturer, announced earlier this year, so even greater savings may be possible with Cree and other newer products.

I did find one LED desk lamp for about $100 called the Mini-Z that both puts out enough light for reading and keeps that light, if you use it by your bed, away from your spouse’s eyes. This kind of light might make a nice back-to-school gift or a marriage-saving gift for that late night reader. Of all of the products I tested this one was the most impressive and showcased the real lesson that may be learned from today’s LED technology.

That lesson is that, generally, LEDs are best when the fixture is designed around them; as bulb replacements, right now, frankly, they kind of suck. For those in the midst of designing a house or commercial building the best vendor I found that might be helpful in this area, and which has a wide assortment of LED fixtures, is Color Kinetics. The fixtures aren’t inexpensive but they work and are in common use for general lighting today.

A Surprise Benefit: Safety

Another thing I discovered while doing the research for this piece was that LEDs have safety benefits as well. Not only do they put out a very crisp white light, which is perfect for security cameras (I’ve converted most of my own security cameras to LED lighted units), but they turn on substantially faster than the alternatives.

This is why LEDs are increasingly used for taillights in cars. I’ve been told by LED experts that for someone driving at 60 miles per hour, having LED taillights on your car can make the difference in avoiding being rear-ended by the car behind you. In other words, a driver can see an LED tail ight sooner so he’s more likely to stop, in general, one car-length more quickly.

Since I personally don’t wish to see the “white light” prematurely I’m glad my FX45 uses LEDs. This may be something to consider next time you buy a new car, too.

In general, LEDs came first in the area of municipal lighting, like street and stoplights, and increasingly they’ve turned up in industrial lighting as well. Now, though, if you’re looking for them you’ll notice them springing up more often in automotive, security, and aeronautical lighting. I’ll bet by 2020 it will be hard to find anything that isn’t lit by LEDs.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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