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An LED light bulb.

Philips' EnduraLED may not look exactly like a 60-watt incandescent bulb, but it passes the test for parity in light output, quality, color and intensity, said judges of the $10 million L Prize.

Photograph courtesy Philips Lighting North America

Chelsea Whyte

For National Geographic News

Published August 3, 2011

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

With a device that resembles a segmented lemon, but glows like an ordinary living room fixture, Philips Lighting North America captured a much-awaited $10 million U.S. government prize, a race to produce the first super high-efficiency replacement for the world's most popular lightbulb.

The U.S. division of the giant Dutch electronics company, Philips, won the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize (L Prize) after months of testing certified that its light emitting diode (LED) bulb, the EnduraLED, measured up in output, quality of light, intensity, and color as a true replacement for the 60-watt incandescent bulb.

The U.S. Congress kicked off the L Prize in its big 2007 energy bill as a way to spur technological advancement in lighting at the same time it was mandating efficiency standards that begin to phase out incandescent lighting in 2012. But the contest milestone was reached today amid uncertainty over those plans and the speed at which high-efficiency lighting will advance.

Philips turned out to be the only official entrant in the competition, with a bulb that currently retails at $40, far more than people are used to paying for a light bulb. (Incandescent bulbs can be bought for less than $1.) And efforts continue on Capitol Hill to repeal the lighting efficiency standards and salvage the future of energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs.

An Heir to Edison's Invention

The backlash against efficient lighting comes at a time when companies like Philips have shown the technology is available for slashing the energy required by the filament-in-glass-bulb design, little changed since it was pioneered by Thomas Edison.

(Related: "On Thomas Edison Bulb Anniversary, Lighting Breakthrough")

"The Philips L-Prize award-winning bulb demonstrates that it's possible to mass-produce an LED light bulb that does everything the 125-year-old bulb can do, and with only a fraction of the electricity," said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group is one of 31 L-Prize program partners, a group that includes utilities and energy programs across the United States that have been serving as advisers and helping field test L-Prize sample bulbs.

The design for EnduraLED, submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nearly two years ago, endured rigorous performance testing.

EnduraLED bulbs were placed in hallways and office buildings to mimic real-life use. And they underwent stress tests, subjecting them to vibration, humidity, and fluctuations in voltage. The lab in the testing center was kept at 110°F (43.3°C) to measure the bulb's ability to work in canister ceiling fixtures, which heat up when a bulb is on for extended periods.

The longest part of the testing was the lifespan measurement. "This is rather tricky," said James Brodrick, the DOE head of the L-Prize competition. The requirement is for a bulb that lasts 25,000 hours. "That's at least three years of being constantly on, so that's what took the most time." The Philips bulbs have been shining for the past 9,000 hours, and Brodrick and his team record data on the bulbs every seven days. So far, so good. "Not one of the bulbs went out," he said.

Not only does Philips claim the cash prize for its achievement, but it has earned a federal contract so it will be included among the options U.S. agencies can consider when they are purchasing replacement bulbs.

Philips was in the running alone for the L Prize, having made its submission back in 2009.

Lighting Science Group, a 600-person company in Satellite Beach, Florida, announced its intention to submit a bulb in March, and General Electric followed suit in July, but neither company entered a bulb into the race.

"We are pleased to be the only one who has submitted anything," said Zia Eftekhar, chief executive of Philips Lighting North America. "Even though I'm unbelievably happy we won, it's still good to challenge the entire industry to move the technology forward."

The L-Prize challenge remains open for companies to win eligibility for federal contracts and endorsements from L-Prize partners, so Lighting Science Group plans to go forward with its application for a bulb that has been a year in the making. "Anything that raises the consciousness of the public towards understanding what good solid-state lighting can do, both from an energy consumption and from ecological consumption standpoint, and even to some degree a security standpoint, we think it's good for the industry," said Fred Maxik, the company's chief technology officer.

The Contest for Consumers

But winning over consumers may be as great a challenge as the L-Prize competition.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), the corkscrew-shaped bulbs that have become the de facto energy-efficient choice, save about 70 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb and last much longer. Though that can equal hundreds of saved dollars in electricity costs each year, meaning the higher up-front cost is paid back very quickly due to lower energy bills, CFLs make up only 17 percent of lightbulb sales.

"[Consumers] don't quite like the light quality or they're worried about the fact that they contain some mercury," said Steve Nadel, Executive Director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "Most compact fluorescents also don't operate well on dimming switches."

That's why lighting efficiency advocates have been hopeful that technology could advance for LEDs to provide light that is white enough and bright enough for ordinary bulb replacement. With the L Prize, Congress put lighting manufacturers to the test to see if a bulb could be made to meet new efficiency standards, and at the same time could ease the concerns of consumers. The winning LED lights beat out CFLs in energy savings, using upwards of 80 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb. They have passed field-testing in homes, grocery stores, hospitals, art museums, and restaurants. And each bulb is expected to last for three years of continuous use.

"They save a little bit more energy and they address all these problems," said Nadel. "We just have to get the price down."

Eftekar said consumers may balk at the $40 price tag on the Philips bulb, but he and Nadel agree that the cost won't stay high forever.

"Everybody I know in the industry is expecting the prices to decline over time dramatically," he said. "It won't be six months, but certainly by 2020--and most people I know expect it well before then--we'll be talking products under $10."

Nadel notes how CFL prices have plummeted. "When I bought my first compact fluorescent back in 1979, I paid $24 for it." Adjust for inflation and that's about $75 today.

"You can buy a compact fluorescent in your local Lowe's or Home Depot for about $2 apiece now," he said. "History doesn't 100 percent repeat itself, but it could take a similar path."

That is, if the U.S. House of Representatives doesn't get in the way. A recent attempt to repeal the 2007 law that requires phasing out of incandescent bulbs didn't pass, but there's an effort to delay its implementation by denying the DOE funding to enforce the law through the federal budget process.

That may take the teeth out of the legislation, Nadel said, but he doubts the amendment will get the support of the Senate or the president. Come January, he expects the phaseout of incandescent bulbs to begin nationwide as planned.

Chelsea Whyte is a reporter for Medill News Service.

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