Truth-tellers are valuable in any discipline, even when -- perhaps especially when -- what they have to say is painful to hear.
We've done a lot of talking here about the residential market for retrofit bulbs. Some of us have expressed skepticism about the direction(s) the lighting industry, and government boosters, are taking in trying to get masses of ordinary people to give up their beloved incandescents and get with something more energy efficient.
Kevin Wilmorth has a blog post from earlier this year that encapsulates pretty much all the objections we have raised, and then some, to the current and apparent future direction the makers of LED-based incandescent replacement light bulbs are moving.
Wilmorth's conclusion is that quality is the only factor that can give LEDs a real chance against the familiar, cheap, and high-quality incandescent. The LEDs' light must be 95+ CRI, highly uniform, and with a distribution very close to 360°. The bulbs must last a long time and demonstrate close to 100% reliability. They must be dimmable to 5%, without misbehaving, by pretty much any legacy dimmer out there. After all that, we can talk about cost.
Wilmorth believes that in three years' time, LED light bulbs will be ready to take on -- wait for it -- CFLs. He believes that over some years LEDs of sufficient quality will be able to claw back most of the 20% of the sockets that CFLs have won. It will be 10 years before LEDs can make a serious dent in residential incandescent use, Wilmorth claims.
Here are a few of the home truths Wilmorth lays out regarding the residential market for incandescent replacement bulbs:
LED bulbs cost too much. A cost disadvantage was one of the (many) failings of CFLs, and of course they cost significantly less than LEDs at present. Wilmorth doesn't say directly what price point he believes will be required for LEDs to make real inroads, but my sense is that the figure in his mind is $5. Over time energy prices will rise still more, but even a factor of two bumps in the cost of electricity won't make a $10 light bulb palatable. And over time government mandates will bite harder -- raising the specter of more pressure for a race to the bottom in quality, with the market sacrificing everything else to price. That is not a winning recipe for LEDs in the residential market.
Ordinary people don't do cost-benefit analyses. Wilmorth alludes without citation to studies showing that commercial decision makers don't apply the same thinking once they get home. Promises of payback beyond three years are useless in the residential market.
The money saved on residential lighting is individually meaningless. Wilmorth goes through the numbers. What will the average home save after an outlay of $660 to replace all its bulbs with LEDs? Maybe $8.40 per month. "Most consumers spend 5 times more every month on soft drinks than they do lighting their homes," Wilmorth notes. Regarding the views of DOE and many marketers about the importance of energy savings, Wilmorth snorts: "This myopia about energy savings-as-market force borders on psychotic."
Wilmorth goes on to deflate the idea that educating consumers offers much promise. Then he pokes holes in the industry's reliance on "cool" lighting features to get consumers excited, such as control by iPhone: "While it would be great to make really smart light bulbs, the question is whether anyone really wants them."
Go read Kevin Wilmorth's blog post (linked above) if you haven't yet; there's lots more food for thought there. You might want to follow his blog via RSS, as I do.
— Keith Dawson , Editor-in-Chief, All LED Lighting