Shedding Light on the Lightbulb Debate

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Are incandescents out the door?

Are incandescents out the door?

CFLs, LEDs, incadescents… there are so many options out there for lightbulbs these days, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks. Incandescent bulbs are the traditional lightbulbs that we all grew up with, and have been commercially popular since the days of Thomas Edison. However, incandescent bulbs emit not only light but also heat, making them extraordinarily energy-inefficient. In the United States, sales of these bulbs will be banned by 2012, given the number of handy alternatives.

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or CFLs, are becoming increasingly popular amongst consumers, especially as the quality of the light they give off is improved. According to the U.S. EPA Energy Star program, CFLs use about 75% less energy than incandescents, and last ten times as long. You can pick up a 6-pack for about $15, which is more than the initial price of incandescents – but CFLs pay for themselves within about six months. An environmental disadvantage of CFLs is their mercury content – many states require that CFLs be properly disposed of or recycled, and Maine even passed a law recently that requires CFL manufacturers to pay for CFL recycling. An aesthetic disadvantage of CFLs is their lack of compatibility with most dimming circuitry – however, this is sure to change in coming years.

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are electronic lights that have frequently used in cell phones and computers. Packing twice the efficiency of CFLs (and with fully dimmable capabilities), they are also considerably more expensive than CFLs or incandescents – as in, $120 per bulb. Nonetheless, they are increasingly being used in large-scale lighting such as streetlights (the stimulus package is helping cities with the up-front cost), and even in the overhead lights at Buckingham Palace.

And what of our old friend the inefficient incandescent? Well, it may be making something of a comeback – scientists at the University of Rochester are using lasers to make incandescents much more energy-efficient. They still aren’t as efficient as CFLs, but the new research is encouraging to those who miss the traditional feel of these much-maligned bulbs. Now that’s the type of innovation that would make Thomas Edison proud.

Elizabeth Liedel is a joint degree candidate at Duke University, pursuing an MBA at the Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Environmental Management at the Nicholas School for the Environment. She is on the Executive Committee of the Duke Microfinance Leadership Initiative and is active in...
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