Tech Writers Have High Hopes for New Lightbulbs

by Brian McGraw on July 6, 2011

in Blog

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Farhad Manjoo of Slate is convinced that a new L.E.D light bulb being produced will look similar to incandescent lighting and still save consumers money over the life of the bulb, according to their predictions and his calculations:

[…] On average, an incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours—that’s about a year, if you keep it on for about three hours a day. Electricity in America also costs about 11 cents per kilowatt hour (that’s the average; it varies widely by region). In other words, a 50-cent, 60-watt incandescent bulb will use about $6.60 in electricity every year. Switch’s 60-watt-equivalent LED, meanwhile, uses only 13 watts of power, so it will cost only $1.43 per year. The Switch bulb also has an average lifespan of 20,000 hours—20 years. If you count the price of replacing the incandescent bulb every year, the Switch bulb will have saved you money by its fourth year. Over 20 years, you’ll have spent a total of about $142 for the incandescent bulbs (for electricity and replacement bulbs) and less than $50 for Switch’s 60-watt bulb. (I made a spreadsheet showing my calculations.)

The problem, of course, is that people don’t buy light bulbs that way—a lot can happen in 20 years, and it seems silly to think of light bulbs as a long-term investment vehicle. (Also, neither Switch nor any other light bulb company guarantees that their bulbs will last that long.) Sharenow concedes this line of thinking, and he’s got two answers. First, he argues that as LEDs are mass-produced over time, their prices will plummet—he estimates that a year from now, Switch’s 60-watt-equivalent bulb will sell for under $15, and could hit $10 the year after that. At that price, Switch’s new bulbs will be much harder to resist. The other advantage is that Switch’s bulbs are beautiful—the company has already seen interest from hotels, department stores, and other companies that are happy to pay for high-end decor. These firms will save money on energy and replacement bulbs and look good doing it. And once we see these bulbs showing up in fancy shops and hotels, we may become much more interested in getting them for our homes.

Besides, we won’t have much choice. With traditional bulbs going away, we’re going to need some other source of light, and nobody likes CFLs. LEDs are the light bulbs of the future. And I’m putting my money—well, a little bit of my money—where my mouth is. I’m buying two of the Switch bulbs for the lamps in our living room. Based on the demo I saw, we’ll never notice the difference, at least until we get our utility bills at the end of the month.

The whole thing is worth reading for an overview of the history of how we got to this point and the short coming of the CFLs. I will point out that though the author acknowledges that the CFLs have failed to live up to similar hype, he quickly overcomes any skepticism he claims to have had that this new technology will be widely adopted by consumers, will last as long as they claim it will (though CFLs have not), etc.

To his credit, he acknowledges the large number of uncertainties in his calculation for a mere $70 in estimated savings over 20 years (assuming electricity prices don’t go up or down, none of the bulbs break, that they last the 20 years they are claimed to last, etc.). Yet his conclusion is to throw his hands up in the air, saying roughly ‘the law is the law.’ It would seem that one could as easily conclude that this legislation was a bad idea and the government should back off it.

A lot of recent internet writing concerning light bulb technology has concluded that the regulation ‘worked’ because new technologies are appearing to replace the bulbs. Unfortunately, this analysis ignores opportunity cost. Yes, the U.S. can make laws which causes corporations to research new technologies, but their success does not signal that it was a good idea. What would those resources have been used for absent government regulation? Given the political lobbying that went into the legislation and the historical failure of top-down economic control, I can only imagine that the free-market would have put the lost time and energy to better use.

I checked my apartment to see how many light bulbs I have. It’s well over 20 and I live in Washington D.C. in a pretty small apartment. Replacing each bulb with one of these new, $20 bulbs would cost roughly $400, an amount I’m unwilling to spend on an unproven technology. The amount could be even much higher for other larger households. Does it really make sense to effectively outlaw a wildly popular technology in efforts to save tiny amounts of energy over the future? If it turns out that these bulbs work as advertised, consumers would likely begin to buy them on their own.

In related news, a new report claims that mercury vapor from broken CFLs can easily exceed the established limits deemed safe by the EPA. It is curious that we are being told that its necessary to spend billions on technologies to reduce mercury emissions from coal fired power plants, yet we are supporting policies that encourage the invitation of mercury into our home.

NikFromNYC July 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I must note something about the futility of the Edison light bulb ban. There is already available an excluded-from-the-ban version of incandescents from Amazon.com and online bulb sites that only cost about double of already cheap normal bulbs, namely “rough service” bulbs that have beefier filaments and are thus *less* efficient than standard bulbs. This loophole will be outed soon after the ban takes effect, assuming it does, and just like other types of prohibition will lead to a rebellion against the law, making them cool and popular and resulting in more energy use akin to how vast number of people prefer big beefy SUVs as status symbols in rebellion against green nanny statism. From the bill:

(ii) EXCLUSIONS.—The term ‘general service incandescent lamp’ does not include the following incandescent lamps:

(XII) A rough service lamp.

Search Amazon.com for: 100W rough service.

josh July 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm

You wrote: “Does it really make sense to effectively outlaw a wildly popular technology in efforts [sic] to save tiny amounts of energy over the future?”

You are an idiot. It does not take much mental effort to appreciate that a) bulbs will get cheaper with increased adoption, and b) making a ubiquitous product 80% more efficient is going to add up to significant energy savings on both small and large scales.

I can’t believe there are imbeciles like you out there who want to pretend (for absurd quasi-political reasons) that there is not an energy crisis brewing in the world. This isn’t about love for old light bulbs, its about stubbornly burying your head in the sand.

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