MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It may be hard to believe, but in just a few short years, the incandescent light bulb will be history. That's because of federal rules that go into effect in 2012. Incandescent bulbs will be phased out and replaced by more efficient technologies. The main alternative up to now, compact fluorescents, have been slow to take off.
But there's a new generation of energy-efficient lighting, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: I'm in the lighting aisle at a Home Depot store in Miami. There are all kinds of lights for sale: incandescents, fluorescents, compact fluorescent lights, halogens. And here's a new kind of light that's for sale - LEDs.
It's a small section now, but it's soon going to grow.
Mr. ZACH GIBLER (CEO, Lighting Science Group): With LEDs, we can do all kinds of neat things. It's going to change the world.
ALLEN: You'll have to forgive Zach Gibler if he seems overly enthusiastic about light bulbs. He's the CEO of the Lighting Science Group, a small Florida-based company with some major achievements. It's the first company to produce an LED under $20 that produces as much light as a 40-watt incandescent bulb.
It received a federal Energy Star rating which makes it eligible for consumer rebates. And perhaps the biggest coup: It's being sold by the nation's largest lighting retailer, Home Depot. Within the next five years, Gibler and others in the industry say half of all lights sold in this country will be LEDs.
Mr. GIBLER: The reason why we're seeing it is, you know, we can use as much as 80 percent less energy, and the product can last about 20 times longer than the technology it's replacing.
ALLEN: LEDs, light emitting diodes, have been around for decades. For many years, they were used mostly to illuminate buttons and meters in electronic devices. But over the last decade, researchers have successfully developed LEDs that produce white light that's comparable or superior to incandescents.
Brad Paulsen of the Home Depot says that factor, the quality of the light, convinced the company the time was right to introduce a line of LED bulbs. Even so, Paulsen says consumer demand for LEDs is limited because of the price -right now, nearly $20 per bulb.
Mr. BRAD PAULSEN (Associate Product Merchant, Home Depot): The one thing I can say pretty confidently is that I think it's going to come down pretty quickly over the next two to three years.
Mr. GIBLER: These folks are putting what we call through-hole components onto the power supply...
ALLEN: The Lighting Science Group's LED factory is located at the same place as its headquarters - Satellite Beach, Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral. Many of its workers are former NASA employees and contractors.
Nearly every lighting manufacturer, including large companies like Philips and GE, are racing to produce its own LED products.
Lighting Science Group's CEO Zach Gibler says it's not a coincidence that a small company is first to the marketplace. An advantage of being small is that Lighting Science can retool quickly and make design innovations part of its finished products.
Gibler says it helps that the company's engineers, developers and manufacturing staff are all at the same location.
Mr. GIBLER: The engineers are right here on the factory floor all the time. And we make changes in new products in a matter of, you know, from design to getting on a factory floor is measured in days. Typically, that's measured in months, and that's a huge competitive advantage.
ALLEN: Last year, the Lighting Science group had 90 employees. Today, it's 400, and its growth is just beginning. The company plans to keep expanding this facility in Satellite Beach and has made deals to open new manufacturing plants in Mexico and Asia.
Gibler's excitement about LEDs is not just about their ability to light homes using less energy. With this technology, he says what happened to entertainment, communications and information is now happening to lighting -it's going digital.
As lighting moves from old analog bulbs to smart LEDs, Gibler says suddenly lamps become electronic devices that can sense and react to the environment they're in.
Mr. GIBLER: Are you watching TV? Are you having a cup of coffee? Or is the sun up? Is the sun down? Lighting systems will be able to adapt to your environment in a way they couldn't before, because we're now using a semiconductor with a microprocessor that allows us to make it smart, just like your phone is.
ALLEN: LEDs may be similar to cell phones in another way as well. With this new technology, light bulbs suddenly are becoming consumer electronic devices. Manufacturers may eventually market LEDs with all sorts of enhanced features: security sensors, cameras, wireless communication.
Although LED bulbs may last 20 years, as models improve, manufacturers are betting you may want to upgrade to smarter LED lights long before your old ones burn out.
Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.
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