Intelligent Energy

When good lights go bad: LED breakdown

Posting in Design

A panel of experts assembled in Amsterdam shine light on the strengths and weaknesses of LEDs.

AMSTERDAM - LED light bulbs augur tremendous reduction in the electricity used to light homes and offices around the world, but quality and pricing issues are keeping consumers at bay for the moment.

So said LED experts and entrepreneurs on a panel discussion at the Cleantech Forum here, noting that mass adoption will not take place until prices fall – they can be €20 in Europe and $40 in the U.S - and until quality stabilizes.

Their views back up the assertion of several readers of this blog who, after an earlier LED story, posted responses from the U.S. reporting that their pricey LED bulbs stopped working after only months – a far cry from the 25 years claimed by manufacturers.

It is the long life and the 80%-to-90% reduction in electricity that make LEDs the “great light hope” in the illumination world. The European Commission has ordered a phase out of inefficient, power-hungry incandescent bulbs by 2012. The EC claims that alternatives including LEDs will save enough energy to power 11 million households a year by 2020, cutting CO2 emissions by 15 million tons annually. That, in turn, reduces consumers’ energy bill.

Vendors like Philips, GE, Osram Sylvania, Cree and others claim that LED bulbs’ super long life combined with their electricity savings gives them a tremendously low cost of ownership compared to traditional lighting.

One problem – no one has yet owned an LED for anywhere near 25 years, as the bulbs only recently became commercially available. And early results show that quality - including longevity - is patchy.

“At the moment, there are good LED products, but at the same time, also bad products,” said Jean-Michel Deswert, technology manager of Laborelec, a research center within French energy company GDF Suez. “It’s difficult for the customer to make a good choice.”

Louis de Fouchier, CEO of French LED distributor and research firm HomeLights S.A, agreed.

“We’re entering a world where you will find on the shelf low, very bad, better (and) higher quality bulbs. And the quality of what you get will depend on the price you’ll be ready to pay,” said de Fouchier, speaking on the Amsterdam panel, organized by San Francisco-based research firm Cleantech Group.

Panelists noted that bulb quality varies widely across all aspects, including brightness, longevity, durability, and the light’s ability to faithfully render an object’s color. As noted in our earlier article from Milan, lighting designers also do not like LED’s relatively cool “color temperature” when compared to the warmth of incandescent bulbs.

But do consumers really want to spend hours wandering through hardware and do-it-yourself stores pouring over the pros and cons of myriad bulb options? “The consumer is confused, and is going to be confused for some time,” said de Fouchier.

Martjin Dekker, CTO of Lemnis Lighting, a Dutch start-up manufacturer of LED bulbs, said failures tend to stem from a breakdown of components within the bulb other than the bulb’s LED (light emitting diode, which is a semiconductor). Those components convert homes’ alternating current to direct current, and knock voltage down from the 220-240 volts and 110 volts common around the world, to around 5-to-12 volts. They also include a heat sink.

Not only can these components fail, but they also explain why LED prices are high. And that, said Dekker, is the leading explanation for the technology’s slow adoption.

“The market for today is still very slow which is a direct consequence of the price,” noted Dekker. “The price is too high for mass adoption.”

Dekker said he is optimistic prices in Europe will decline to consumers’ acceptable levels in the second half of this year, and that other geographic markets would follow in 2012. He did not predict what the price would be. Josh Gould, a Cleantech Group analyst, said LED prices are declining by 20% to 25% per year.

The panelists said that other LED attributes will help usher in the bulb. For instance, LEDs are easier to control remotely than are traditional bulbs, noted Marc Ottolini, CEO of UK lighting control start-up Isotera. That means users can switch them on and off and alter their color as well as their brightness - like never before. That, in turn, will lead to new business models in which buyers purchase lighting services rather than bulbs, panellists said.

Adding to consumers’ hopes that LED prices tumble: many governments around the world - like the EU and its 2012 policy - are phasing out incandescent bulb. If LED prices don’t come down soon, consumers may have little choice other than to pay an unfamiliar sum for the thing they screw into a lamp in the corner of the living room. Let’s hope the engines of innovation knock a few dollars off the upfront burden of buying a bulb for a lifetime.

Photo: GeoBulb

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure