Tomorrow’s Better Bulbs

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In 2007 President Bush signed into law a sprawling energy bill, with a minor, glowing stipulation – a federal mandate that would force old-fashioned, inefficient incandescent lightbulbs into extinction. That requirement drew all the heat, headlines, and Beltway bloodletting of an Energy Star overhaul. Which is to say, none.

Four years later, despite protests from the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh’s charges that “the government ought to have not a damn thing to say about the lightbulb I buy,” the future of lighting is here to stay. Starting in 2012, all 100-watt bulbs must use 30 percent less electricity. The law toughens the wattage standard until 2014, when even a 40-watt bulb must produce the same amount of light with just 29 watts. In all, by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates, the law will cut America’s electric bill by $12.5 billion a year. “Thomas Edison would be thrilled,” says Jim Presswood, federal energy policy director for NRDC. “He’d be happy to see we changed from horse and buggy and iceboxes, and we’re finally doing that with lightbulbs.”

The funny thing about the lighting debate is that the bulbmakers aren’t griping. Far from the political battlefield, in General Electric’s lighting division headquarters in Cleveland, the company is showing off its first-round replacement, the halogen bulb. Like the bulb that Thomas Edison invented, the halogen runs electricity through a wire – or filament – to make light, but it is now seated inside a gas chamber that reacts with the wire for a more efficient burn. The tech raises the cost to about $2 a bulb, compared with 50 cents for a standard 100-watt incandescent, but gains in efficiency offset that cost in a year. These bulbs will likely overtake the cold light we’ve come to revile from the $5 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) that arrived in stores years ago.

Halogens are only the first innovation to come to the shelves. In the near future, we’ll all be turning on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, the digital wunderkinder of light output. They use 80 percent less electricity than incandescents and “will change lighting as quickly and as drastically as any other technology solid-state has touched,” says Gary Allen, a principal engineer at GE who’s worked on every breed of bulb in his 23 years at the company that essentially invented them all, including CFLs, halogens, and visible LEDs.

Imagine a future home in which lights can be controlled by smartphones and self-adjust for maximum ambience and efficiency. At dawn the kitchen walls, built with LED panels, mimic the sunrise outside, becoming effectively transparent. At 10 pm a bedside lamp makes an unseen frequency jump, triggering melatonin to aid sleep. For now, this tableau is science fiction, but these capabilities exist in the electronic chips that make LEDs so versatile.

LEDs on the shelves today have one major limitation: Quality bulbs cost too much – starting at about $30 each. In the next five to 10 years, many expect the cost to drop to $10. The 2012 transition will be slow and, to those of us who would rather riffle through bins of 99-cent lightbulbs, a little painful. But just as the prices of HDTV and smartphones proved their value, so will LEDs. Edison made lighting pretty. Computers will make it shine.

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