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NRDC: Bright Ideas

image of Adam Aston
Noah Horowitz

Noah Horowitz is the brains behind NRDC's efforts to cut energy use in buildings. His areas of expertise include residential lighting and appliances, consumer electronics, information technology gear, and energy-saving "cool" roofs. For more about his research on efficient TVs and video games, see his Switchboard blog.

How does lighting efficiency fit into our overall challenge to reduce energy use?

Better lighting is just one part of a broader push to improve how buildings use energy. A typical building lasts 150 years, so any technology we build into them is likely to stay in place for decades. It's better to build them right, the first time, than to fix them later. This means putting in more efficient lighting, superior insulation to keep things cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and good windows that let in light but that don't leak energy. NRDC supports these goals by trying to upgrade codes and by promoting efficiency incentives at local, state, and national levels.

Federal standards to improve lighting efficiency are due to come into effect in less than two years. How do the rules work?

NRDC was the chief architect of the lighting standards included in the Energy Independence Act of 2007. The rules phase out inefficient lightbulbs in a technology-neutral way. In other words, the rules don't specifically ban incandescents. Nor do they specify LEDs or CFLs as replacements. The rules simply set efficiency targets that come on line in two steps, first in 2012 then again in 2020.

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Beginning in 2012, common household bulbs must use 30 percent less power. That means today's incandescents (which convert only 10 percent of the electricity they consume into light -- the rest is given off as heat) don't pass the new code. Today's incandescent 60-watt bulb puts out about 900 lumens of light, or about 15 lumens of light per watt of electricity. The 2012 standards calls for bulbs of around 20 lumens per watt or better. By 2020, the rules call for a further improvement in efficiency, to about 45 lumens per watt, about three times more efficient than today's bulbs. That's about the efficiency of a CFL today.

If CFLs can do the job, why do we need the L Prize, which focuses on LEDs?

The L Prize jump starts research and development of LED technology to bring down the price and spread the technology faster than it might otherwise on its own. The 2007 energy act puts money aside to help with R&D and set-up the prize. For the industry, the prize is valuable for the prestige it brings. And it should help consumers, too. The prize is a seal of approval from the government on LED technology.

Are today's LED bulbs ready to work as substitutes for incandescents?

Not quite yet. For now, screw-in LEDs aren't a great application because of the way they give off heat. Where incandescent bulbs radiate heat from the glass, LEDs radiate heat from their bases, where it's more difficult to remove the heat. This can impair their efficiency.

Another problem that LED makers are working with is that because of the way LEDs make light -- in narrow beams -- current LEDs are best suited as directional light sources. For omni-directional coverage, when you need to light a whole room, current LEDs might not be best. But in some uses, they're a good fit, such as for recessed ceiling lights.

LED makers see that there are over four billion screw-based sockets in the U.S., all of which will need a new kind of bulb sometime after 2012 when most incandescents go away. So they're working to fix these problems.

How will general household lighting evolve after 2012, then?

LEDs aren't a silver bullet. For example, the bulb Philips submitted for the L Prize uses about 9 watts to produce the light of today's 60-watt incandescent. Philips LED is just a bit more efficient than today's CFLs, though. And for now, new LEDs are costly: maybe $15 per bulb, versus a few dollars for a CFL. That price will come down, and their efficiency will improve gradually.

So come 2012, LEDs won't suddenly replace all incandescents. There will be a period when there's a mix of new technologies -- CFLs, LEDs and others -- each coming in to take the place of old-fashioned bulbs. There's also next-generation halogen -- some manufacturers call it the "new incandescent" -- that will also compete against the CFL.

It may take LEDs longer to become mainstream, perhaps further into this decade. After 2012, where we used to use a 100-watt bulb to light a room, it will be replaced by a 70 watt that's perhaps a next-generation halogen. Then you will have a 23-watt bulb CFL with better quality than one of today's. And after that maybe will come LEDs at around 15 watts, with even better quality light.

With lighting on the right track, what other household devices could benefit from improved efficiency?

Just about anything that connects to your TV could be vastly improved. Most cable and set-top boxes are left on day and night, regardless of use. They consume lots of power and have very little intelligence to power down. Consider a digital video recorder such as TiVO, a common feature in many cable boxes. They typically draw 30 watts when turned on, and 29 watts when turned off, just one watt less.

Video games are similar. They're left on all the time, too. Gamers leave them on because they worry they'll lose their place in the game. And 40 percent of homes have them. On average, it can cost about $100 per year to leave them on. That means that in just a few years, the cost of energy they use is more than the price of the game system itself.

We need those things to sleep when we're sleeping. If you have a DVR and a couple of other boxes in your home, all together they can use as much energy as your fridge. We're working with the industry to get better standards in place. If these devices went into low-power mode when not in use, we could cut their overall electricity consumption by up to 75 percent. It's criminal how much energy they use.

image of Adam Aston
Adam Aston is a freelance journalist and editor who focuses on green issues. Previously, Adam was energy and environment editor at BusinessWeek, where he covered corporate sustainability, renewable energy, and green finance while producing a regular ... READ MORE >

While Mr Horwitz is correct regarding most
of the information regarding SSL products, I
would take issue with assertation that the
Led thermal dynamic issues regarding heatsinks
and attendant heat disepation,the're a
non issue with quality SSL products tha use
Ac Leds- Mr Horowitz may be knowlegable but
the Leds he speaks of are already out dated
like a vcr or brick cell phone SSLPro

Why is a 60 watt bulb used as an example ? I have SAD ( Seasonal Affective Disorder ) and 60 watts is useless. For reading, I need a minimum of 100 watts incandescent on either side of where I am reading. Until I could no longer get them, I used a 250 watt soft white on either side of where I was reading. Also, many people get sick or headaches from fluorescent bulbs and tubes.