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LEDs the Fast-Rising Heroes of Efficiency

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, once were the stuff of electronics geeks rifling through circuit board component drawers at Radio Shack.

They were the blinking lights on computers and stereo systems signifying that the power was on, and the soft red glow of a calculator display back when President Jimmy Carter was putting solar panels on the White House.

Today, LEDs are the rising heroes of energy efficiency around the world.  

LED technology is advancing so fast that LED light bulbs are quickly becoming an affordable and even more efficient replacement for the cool spiral of the previous icon of efficiency, the compact fluorescent bulb, or CFL.

This graph shows just how fast LEDs are leap-frogging CFLs:

Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Consider this from a new report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration: Three years ago, LED bulbs were roughly as efficient as compact fluorescents, emitting around 70 lumens of light per watt of power. That efficiency increased a bit over the next year or so, but it has really taken off just in the last few months.

Today, the average efficiency of an LED lightbulb is about 100 lumens per watt, about 20 percent higher than the LED lights available just last January.

At the same time, CFL efficiency has stayed flat — between 55 and 70 lumens per watt. Incandescent bulbs, by comparison, provided up to only 18 lumens per watt before a nationwide phase-out began in 2012.

Home energy efficiency is a major factor in the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which calls for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants as a way to combat climate change. The more energy efficient a home is, the less electricity it consumes. And that means fewer CO2 emissions.

LED technology is advancing so fast for several reasons.

A blue LED light. Credit: Robert Godicke/flickr

There have been ongoing improvements in LED chips, optics, thermal management and package configuration that contribute to greater efficiency while manufacturing costs have come down, said U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson Namrata Kolachalam.

Between 2011 and 2012, global sales of LED bulbs increased by 22 percent, and by 2030, the LEDs could account for 75 percent of all lights sold worldwide, according to the DOE. In the U.S., about 45 million LED bulbs were shipped to stores in 2013, up from only 9 million LEDs in 2011.

The retail price of LED bulbs is coming down, too. Some LED lights today are about the same price as a CFL bulb.

For example, a 60 watt-equivalent LED bulb was advertised on Home Depot’s website for $6.97 on Friday. A similar 60 watt-equivalent CFL bulb was advertised for $5.97.

“It’s still the case LEDs are going to be the most expensive option on the shelf, but they’ve come down in cost considerably even (compared to) months or years ago,” said U.S. Energy Information Administration analyst Owen Comstock. “You’ve got a lot of economies of scale starting to take place now that these are being adopted more in homes.”

With the kind of energy efficiency LEDs provide, what’s good for your wallet and power bill could be especially good for the climate. But only if LEDs go viral.

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2012 Global Carbon Emissions Human-generated emissions of CO2 this year are expected to reach 35.6 billion tons.

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