The End of the Incandescent Bulb|
In 1879 Thomas Alva Edison famously produced the first practical electric light bulb and transformed the entire world almost overnight. His design led to the first commercial power plants, the first electrical power grids, and changed how industry worked, and how private citizens lived their lives. Edison’s commitment to bringing cheap electrical lighting and power to the public helped to usher in the technological age and forever changed the face of the world. Over a century later his incandescent bulb design remains relatively unchanged and continues to dominate the lighting industry. That is about to change.
Since Edison’s first realization that electrical energy held the keys to the worlds future, generating electrical power has become one of the most intensely researched and developed industries in history. As electrical technology grew and spread throughout the world, the need for energy to power this growth has grown as well. One hundred and thirty years after Edison’s first efforts to mass produce cheap electricity to power his incandescent bulbs, the world has finally begun to reach an impasse. Technology and human development are growing faster than the ability to produce the electrical energy needed to sustain them. The resources needed to fuel production of this energy are finite and dwindling. The burning of fossil fuels to produce electrical power is polluting the environment. And still the need for electrical power continues to grow.
Realizing that this demand for electrical power must somehow be met, researchers the world over have begun serious efforts aimed at finding ways to produce electricity more cleanly and cheaply, and perhaps more importantly, ways to use electrical energy more efficiently. It is these efforts to improve the efficiency with which we use electrical energy that are now ushering in a new revolution in electrical lighting that promises to not only improve on the classic incandescent design produced by Edison, but make it obsolete. While the basic incandescent design has seen improvements, and fluorescent lighting represented a major increase in lighting efficiency, neither were sufficient to produce a truly innovative or significant improvement in how efficiently we consume energy.
In the United States alone, artificial lighting represents almost a quarter of all the energy used in the country. Up to forty percent of the average electricity costs of the commercial sector are due to electric lighting. In the public sector, electric lighting accounts for up to twenty five percent of household energy usage. In the U.S., lighting accounts for sixty billion dollars in energy cost annually with these costs projected to rise significantly in the next twenty years. Up to half of these costs are due to the high inefficiency of the traditional incandescent bulb which wastes up to ninety percent of the energy it uses as heat, with only ten percent being used to produce light. As can be seen, improving lighting efficiency represents a huge opportunity to significantly reduce energy consumption on a national and even global scale.
Enter the LED, or Light Emitting Diode. Although they have been around for decades, LEDs rarely received much notice until recently. Initially low powered and lacking in practical abilities, they were generally found in applications that required a long lived and low powered source of illumination such as the indicator lights in computers or appliances. In the last ten years however LED technology has rapidly advanced, leading to first cautious optimism for their abilities, and eventually a widespread consensus that they represent the lighting technology of the future. Vast improvements in light output, light quality, and innovative designs producing effective light distribution have thrust LEDs to the forefront of lighting technology and made them the most heavily developed technology in the lighting industry today.
Across the United States, state and local governments are implementing new energy and technology policies that rely heavily on the LED to bring down the costs associated with energy consumption and equipment maintenance. Already several programs have been enacted and are returning impressive results demonstrating the savings in energy costs alone that LEDs are capable of producing. LEDs are fast replacing the incandescent bulbs used in traffic signals, the high pressure sodium bulbs used in street lighting, and the metal halide lamps used in commercial applications, with solid results.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, LEDs installed in place of metal halide lamps in the parking lot of a commercial shopping center as part of the Department of Energy’s Gateway program have in their first year returned a fifty eight percent savings in energy costs. In Palo Alto, California, LEDs were used to replace selected high pressure sodium street lights and averaged a forty four percent reduction in energy consumption. In West Sacramento, California, a grocery store parking lot was refitted with LEDs in place of the metal halides once illuminating the area and produced energy savings of up to seventy percent. There are hundreds of projects like this taking place across the country, and the majority of them demonstrate time and again the benefits to be had from LED lighting technology. If we also factor in the inherently long life of LEDs, the savings grow even larger, as LEDs outlast most types of lamps by a margin of three, five, or even ten to one. This means that it could take up to ten traditional incandescent bulbs to equal the lifespan of a single LED lamp.
Lamps like the Larson Electronics LED light - 80 LEDs - 20 by 4 LED array offer the same amount of light as lamps that draw two and three times as much energy, with the added benefit of outliving them by thousands of hours. This means thousands of dollars in energy and maintenance costs saved over the life of the lamp, and a return on initial outlay within a matter of a few years depending upon the application. This is important as one of the biggest factors causing hesitation of accepting LEDs in the commercial and public sectors is the perceived high initial costs, but when the overall savings are understood, their true value becomes apparent.
LEDs are now available that can fill the role of just about any type of lighting application imaginable. Industry experts expect the advancement in LED technology to continue and indeed major improvements are being announced on a frequent basis. Improvements that underscore the growing role LEDs will play as the world looks for ways to conserve energy and improve the efficiency with which it is used.