LEDs: Their Future is (Really) Bright!

Debate continues about whether LEDs have the output in lumens, the color consistency and the price point to replace traditional incandescent, halogen and fluorescent lamps in high brightness and general illumination applications. Is it finally time to end the discussion? Well, the numbers don’t lie. According to Attardi Marketing, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for high-brightness LED component sales for lighting from 2010 through 2015 is forecast to be 39 percent. In addition, The Bedford Report research firm states that LEDs are on the verge of overtaking both incandescent and fluorescent lamps, in terms of use, as governments, businesses and consumers seek to curb carbon emissions.

“Technologically, LEDs are ready today to replace traditional light sources, including halogen and incandescent, in general illumination applications such as directional lamps,” said Peter DallePezze, vice president of product and marketing management at Toshiba LED Lighting Systems, Houston.

Meanwhile, LEDs’ lumen output is certainly high enough now to replace any traditional light source, according to Rick Hamburger, director, segment marketing at Philips Lumileds, San Jose, Calif.
“The industry is already beginning to research how to increase lumens in LED packages even further with the intent of producing a product that requires fewer semiconducting materials to produce the same output levels,” Hamburger said.

For omnidirectional LED lamps, however, DallePezze admits that there is still room for improvement in terms of the aesthetic, physical design.

“Some manufacturers expect to have better aesthetic designs in the market by the fourth quarter,” he said.

Steve Briggs, vice president of marketing and global product management for GE Lighting, Cleveland, also believes that LEDs have already found mainstream acceptance in directional illumination applications, including down and accent lighting, where incandescent and halogen have been the mainstay.

“However, in ambient applications dominated by linear fluorescent bulbs, LEDs still do not compete well today,” he said.

But early adopters and innovators are expected to develop luminaires of better value that will be a realistic alternative to linear fluorescent in the next two to five years.

“The ultimate solution may be a different design or architecture than consumers are currently used to, but it will offer more value than a tubular shaped product,” Briggs said.

One of the main drivers of the mainstream acceptance of LEDs in general illumination applications has been California Title 24, which has various requirements and incentives to encourage the use of high efficacy lighting as measured by the amount of visible light emitted per watt of power consumed. And, according to Hamburger, big box stores and electrical distributors are beginning to carry high-quality LED products, and consumers are accepting the value proposition of LED technology.

“LEDs are already mainstream for the professional and high-end consumer markets,” he said.

Cost, color and controls
The biggest knock against LEDs is probably the cost. Right now, the upfront cost of LEDs in general illumination is admittedly significant but, according to DallePezze, can be acceptable, depending on the building’s or consumer’s current energy costs and usage.

“In the near-term, a LED that is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent in terms of output is going to be more expensive. But price is already less of a consideration in those applications, with higher energy costs and always-on considerations, and it will be dropping consistently and significantly over the next three years,” he said.

Hamburger agreed that pricing is already becoming less of a consideration because LED fixtures provide quality and performance that is as good or better as traditional lighting.

“Businesses and consumers are at the point where they are looking beyond just price as the ultimate decision-driver and are seriously considering LED technology for its sustainability aspects as well as for the incentives and rebates that are helping to accelerate acceptance,” he said.

In the professional channel, Briggs said, life cycle and payback are more of a consideration than price.

“When payback reaches less than two years, the product in question gains mainstream acceptance,” he said.

To address issues of cost, the Department of Energy recently issued 17 solid-state lighting grants. The agency will put $10.3 million into product development to refine them to be more functional, market-friendly and commercially viable. And for the first time, the DOE’s solid-state lighting grants will include $23.5 million to invest in a manufacturing category. Collectively, these grants seek to drive down costs while improving quality and developing new product-making techniques. The chosen companies will also chip in large sums of cash on their projects, bringing the whole solid-state research program to more than $66 million.

Problems revolving around the color of the light generated by LEDs seem to be mostly resolved. Hamburger pointed out that LEDs already achieve as good or better a color point from product to product as other modern lighting technologies. In the future, he believes manufacturers will develop even more color point and color rendering index (CRI) combinations that provide further options for the consumer.

“For example, workers could use LED fixtures to design personal lighting schemes in their office spaces,” he said.

LEDs are already achieving a level of 90 on the CRI, and Briggs expects products that reach 95 CRI to hit the market by 2012.

“Even today, custom binning or special recipes will achieve 95 on the CRI scale, which is better than both linear fluorescents and CFLs. Only halogen, at 100, outperforms LEDs in this area,” he said.

In the realm of controls, bilevel occupancy and motion sensors for LED fixtures are being developed, and in some places, such as California, it is already legislated that certain outdoor fixtures include the technology. For indoor applications, Hamburger said, pilot studies are being performed on ambient lighting controls for LEDs that will enable sensors to optimize the use of natural light and control fixtures’ outputs according to those levels.

“It typically takes one to two years to get from pilot program to market,” he said.

And although LEDs are not yet compatible with all dimming controls, great compatibility advancements are being made, and Briggs predicts that LEDs will soon operate on a greater range of analog dimmers and improve performance on digital dimmers.

Ready for prime time
Manufacturers are ready to educate electrical contractors, distributors and product end-users about what LED technology is and what it can really do.

“The responsibility is on manufacturers to educate the chain and create demonstrable examples that show the benefits of the technology,” Hamburger said.

Contractors can look to the lighting industry to adopt a “try it before you buy it” philosophy to help overcome any resistance to LED technologies, DallePezze said

“Considering some of the performance disappointments surrounding CFLs when they were introduced, it’s natural that contractors might be hesitant to believe LED claims,” he said.

DallePezze’s recommendation to contractors is to try LEDs in appropriate applications and see how they perform.

“Just make sure to do the research that ensures a quality product is being used,” DallePezze said.

Testing and lighting standards, such as IESNA’s LM79 and LM80, are already available and can ensure contractors that they are purchasing the proper, reliable product for the installation, while the National Electrical Manufacturers Association has issued several standards and white papers covering LED drivers, dimming and binning.

From a strictly cost perspective, Briggs does not believe that LEDs are ready for mainstream acceptance.

“But if long-life, energy-efficiency performance and color are the most important criteria for fulfilling the end-user’s requirements, then LEDs are certainly ready to replace traditional lighting sources,” he said.

Future growth
According to the DOE, rapid progress will continue as the agency, along with its industry partners, pushes this technology to its efficiency limit, which is expected to be reached by about 2015. Properly designed LED luminaires will achieve efficacies of about 138–188 lumens per watt or LPW, or 10 to 14 times that of incandescent lighting. In addition, the DOE expects that LEDs will continue to fall in price as new and better ways to package and manufacture them are perfected.

Contractors should not underestimate the effect that LEDs are going to have on future projects. According to Hamburger, a February 2011 solid-state lighting fixture report from Strategies Unlimited, predicts that the LED lighting market will grow to $8.3 billion by 2014, with a CAGR for the solid-state luminaire market to be 21 percent from 2010 through 2014. The report, “LED Luminaires Market Analysis and Forecast Second Edition 2011,” states that improvements in performance and the price of commercially available high brightness LED packages, heightened concerns regarding energy efficiency, and the phase out of incandescent lamps, have combined to create favorable conditions for acceptance of the technology.

Based on multiple market analyses and proprietary, internal growth rates, Briggs expects the LED retrofit lamp market to grow 50 to 65 percent over the next three years, which by anyone’s reckoning should translate into a great deal of LED work for electrical contractors. And while Toshiba wouldn’t share any specific numbers, DallePezze said that the company is so confident that LEDs will become the prominent technology in the lighting market within five years that it stopped making incandescent sources a couple of years ago.

The debate really can end; there’s no longer any doubt that the future will be an energy-efficient one, and LEDs are certain to play a pivotal role in achieving it. The technology’s few remaining limitations will be surpassed soon, and LEDs will be widely adopted as the light source of choice by a cross-section of society. Electrical contractors should be on the leading edge of that wave.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.

About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer

Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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