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GreenSpace: The new lightbulbs, confusing but enlightening

Lighting is changing fast. Incandescents as we know them are on the way out. It may be confusing for a while. But in the end, your wallet will thank you. And so will the planet.

(Illustration by Michael Bryant)
(Illustration by Michael Bryant)Read more

Lighting is changing fast. Incandescents as we know them are on the way out.

It may be confusing for a while. But in the end, your wallet will thank you. And so will the planet.

Walk down today's lighting aisle, and it's intimidating.

Incandescents. Halogens. CFLs. LEDs. All sizes. All shapes. All colors, from warm white to a crisp bluish tint. And more to come.

So read on for a tour of the ever-burgeoning bulb-land.

"There's a tremendous amount of development," said Brian Fortenbery, an energy efficiency lighting expert with the Electric Power Research Institute, a national nonprofit. "It's not a one-technology game, by any stretch."

Driving the change is a provision in the Energy Independence and Security Act that Congress passed in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration.

It set energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, which will begin to phase in come Jan. 1, 2012.

A wide misconception is that the law "bans" incandescents and "mandates" CFLs.

It's more of a required tune-up, supporters say. The act requires new bulbs to put out the same light with 30 percent less energy.

But in reality, incandescents as we know them will not meet the standard.

Recently, some influential critics have surfaced. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas) and a dozen other Republicans introduced legislation they're calling the BULB Act, for Better Use of Light Bulbs. It would repeal the bulb portion of the 2007 act.

"It is about personal freedom," Barton said. "These are the kinds of regulations that make American people roll their eyes."

The energy efficiency community is aghast. Isn't conservation part of being a conservative?

With about four billion screw-based sockets to fill in the United States, it matters what we put in them. Lighting accounts for about 15 percent of the energy use of a typical household.

Efficiency advocates say the new standards ultimately will save consumers more than $10 billion annually - $143 per household - and avert the need for 30 new power plants.

They point out the act isn't telling people what kinds of bulbs to put in their homes. It's more like increasing the gas mileage of cars.

Moreover, the market is already responding. At the beginning of January, Ikea stopped selling incandescents altogether.

The energy efficiency world has taken on our fridges, our water heaters, our washers and dryers. But the incandescent lightbulb has remained "the least efficient piece of equipment in our homes," said Noah Horowitz, a lighting expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit.

Ninety percent of the electricity that goes into it is given off as waste heat. "Tell me another product where you're only getting 10 percent of the energy coming in converted to useful work," he said.

For those who can't quite kick the habit of energy-guzzling incandescents, halogens may be your first baby step toward efficiency.

Adding the gas reverses the deterioration of the tungsten lighting filament, making the bulb about 25 percent more efficient. Otherwise, these bulbs look and act like incandescent twins.

The next step in efficiency is CFLs, compact fluorescent lightbulbs. These have had a tough go since their introduction a few decades ago, when they were big and clunky, with poor light that didn't even come on right away. And they were expensive to boot.

Now they are cheaper, brighter, and truer, the shades of light ranging from warm white to cool. New versions are dimmable.

Most still take a few minutes to reach full brightness, but General Electric has announced a halogen "hybrid" that is instantly bright. It's due on shelves this spring.

One persistent problem, at least in terms of public acceptance, has been the mercury in CFLs, although the amounts have lessened significantly. People read the Environmental Protection Agency's instructions for cleaning up a broken bulb - air the room for 15 minutes, don't vacuum the pieces - and they freak.

All fluorescent bulbs, not just CFLs, have mercury. It's what Michael Myer, a lighting engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, calls "a necessary evil."

But we can't ignore the mercury that is produced in a coal-fired power plant, which accounts for roughly 50 percent of the nation's power. Scientists have compared the mercury emission that incandescent bulbs would be "responsible" for to the mercury in CFLs, and declared the CFL the better choice.

Many big-box home stores offer recycling, so the mercury is handled properly.

Engineers and first-adopters are excited now about LEDs, which hold the promise of huge efficiencies.

For now, the technology is deemed to be in the toddler stage. Or the equivalent of cell phones in about 1990, when they were like bricks you held to your ear.

So they're heavy, the light's dim, and some are infused with the color blue.

But in recent months, bulb giants Philips Lighting North America and Osram Sylvania have released 60-watt equivalents with a warm hue and in the traditional shape of an incandescent. (The external ribs on many LEDs carry heat away from the bulb.)

Myer credits the Department of Energy's "L Prize," which will be awarded to the first LED that has the same light output as a 60-watt incandescent and meets other standards. So far, Philips is the only entrant.

Sylvania's LED retrofit market manager, Ellen Sizemore, said the company was more interested in "providing the market with the best, most cost-efficient products for the masses" rather than some of the finer points of the L Prize.

So far, the price is an eye-opener - about $40 per bulb. But Peter Soares, Philips' consumer marketing director, said the bulb would save $142 over its life for someone paying 11 cents a kilowatt-hour.

We may yet see all kinds of new technologies, experts say.

One of many newcomers is the "electron stimulated luminescence" bulb sold only online and developed by the New York company Vu1.

Certified by Underwriters Laboratories in October, it uses the technology of old TVs. A cathode generates electrons and sprays them onto the bulb's interior phosphor coating. The equivalent of a 65-watt incandescent, it costs under $20 and uses just 19.5 watts.

Clearly, however, old habits die hard. Sales figures from the industry group the National Electrical Manufacturers Association show incandescents still clearly in the lead. CFLs, the second-runners, account for only one in four bulb sales.

Still, in 2010, 60 percent of respondents to a national "socket survey" commissioned by Sylvania said they had switched at least one bulb to a more energy-efficient version in the last year.

But respondents ranked the amount of energy the lightbulb uses only as fourth most important on a list of attributes.

So wake up, kiddos.

The bulbs aren't the be-all.

The lingo is changing, too.

Watts are on the way out. Eventually, we'll all have to learn lumen-speak.

Lumens are a measure of brightness.

Watts are simply the power needed to light the bulb, which worked as a proxy when we had only one kind of bulb. But now you can get an LED bulb that's as bright as a 60-watter but consumes only 12 watts.

New labels are headed our way, probably this summer, designed by the Federal Trade Commission.

They'll resemble food nutrition labeling, showing how bright the bulb is, its expected life, its light appearance, the energy used, and the estimated yearly energy cost.

Advocates like the NRDC's Horowitz say the best is ahead, both in light and in savings.

"Today's consumers have no idea what a bad deal that 25-cent 100-watt incandescent bulb was," he said.