The incandescent bulb has had a good run and compact fluorescents (CFLs) have improved dramatically in cost and performance since I bought my first one in 1993. But bulbs using light emitting diode technology (LEDs) are currently transforming the lighting market. It is a classic example of a technology that started out in niche, high-value markets, and over time has improved in cost and performance to the point that it is now poised to take over in much larger markets.
In “Economic Impacts of Advanced Energy,” energy-efficient lighting was shown to be one of the fastest growing segments of the advanced energy market, driven in part by the dramatic improvements in LEDs. In their latest forecast, Navigant Research projects that annual worldwide revenue from LED lamps will grow from just over $1.5 billion in 2013, to more than $8.5 billion in 2021. That squares with a recent LinkedIn survey of energy professionals by AEE, in which LEDs ranked first as the technology people most expect to “take off” in 2013, with 28% of the vote, almost twice that of the next highest vote-getter. (Click below to get the full results of the survey.)
Poised for take off they may be, but LEDs are nothing new. I got my first digital watch when I was in elementary school in the 1970s, and it had an LED display. The watch was thick and heavy and to see the time you needed to press a button to light up the LEDs. The LEDs would shut off a few seconds later to save battery life. Today, LEDs are widely used for displays on alarm clocks, microwaves, DVD players, VCRs (yes, I still have one of those), and many other devices. They have also become the technology of choice for the backlighting of color LCD screens, like those on laptops, tablets, smart phones and flat panel “LED” TVs.
New, super thin (just a few millimeters), efficient and vibrant organic LEDs (OLEDs) are starting to replace backlit LCD-LED technology, starting with the smaller screens of smart phones. As prices drop, expect OLEDs to eventually take over other display markets. LEDs have also become the technology of choice for traffic signals, emergency exit signs, and are increasingly found on cars, trucks and buses, mainly for turn signals and taillights, but also in headlights on higher-end vehicles. This has become possible as the brightness and efficiency of white LEDs has improved and prices have come down. LEDs are now making rapid inroads into street lighting and specialty commercial lighting. General commercial and residential lighting is next. LED prices are falling rapidly, and you can now buy general purpose LED bulbs for about $10-20, including those with the familiar Edison socket. Go to Home Depot and you are likely to see a big display of LEDs from Cree, with 60 watt-equivalent bulbs selling for $13 apiece, 40 watt-equivalent for $10.
All this is great news, since LEDs provide multiple energy, economic, and environmental benefits. As recently as 2010, lighting accounted for 15% of all electricity used in the United States. In some applications, such as traffic signals and some commercial lighting applications, LEDs can cut energy use by 80-90%. Compared to CFLs, they are slightly more efficient, but last much longer (which reduces bulb replacement costs), contain no mercury (all fluorescent bulbs contain small amounts of mercury), and are fully dimmable with no loss in performance or lifespan. As solid-state semiconductor devices, LED lighting is well suited to integration with intelligent lighting controls, and you can already buy bulbs that come with an IP address. Companies are now working on integrating these technologies to maximize the benefits. Digital Lumens for one is combining hardware, networking software, and energy efficiency to reduce energy use in large industrial spaces like warehouses, saving money for industrial leaders.
LEDs can already be justified on cost savings alone, and the economic equation will only become more compelling over time. But on top of that, LEDs are simply superior products to existing options. It is not surprising that business leaders agree that LEDs are poised to takeoff in 2013—they are a piece of advanced energy technology that represents a win for everyone.