Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 19 Feb 2010

Preserving the good name of LEDs

The chances are good that you have already bought a light emitting diode (LED) lamp, though probably out of curiosity rather than to fill a specific need (because they are really expensive and don’t provide much light yet). The chances are also good that you were disappointed with the quality of the light or, worse, it broke long before making a dent in its promised 40,000 hour lifetime. Does this sound like the history of CFLs?

The lighting efficacies of LEDs have been rising steadily and LED lamps are poised to overtake CFLs. Fluorescents and CFLs still outshine LEDs with respect to general applications and cost of light, but LEDs are already superior for some niche applications and offer many new exciting illumination opportunities. Now we need to ensure that the reputation of this new energy-saving lighting source won’t be undermined by a tidal wave of shoddy products. Tests for quality, efficiency, and durability of LEDs have been mostly established but it’s still a jungle out there in the marketplace. Here’s what a recent US DOE report wrote about one LED:

Product 09-65 is sold in big-box retail stores and home improvement stores, but includes blatantly misleading product labeling, claiming to replace 40W incandescent lamps. In fact, initial testing (per LM-79) reveals that it only produces the light output of lower performing 15W incandescent candelabras. Longer-term testing reveals that it depreciates to a level of negligible light output after 1000 hours of continuous operation, negating all cost-savings claims on the packaging because they are based on 30,000-hour bulb life.

This is incredibly valuable information (indeed, the whole report is excellent) but wouldn’t you like to know who manufactured that LED? Sorry, that’s not exactly confidential but takes further research. If a consumer buys Product 09-65 do you think that she will soon buy a second LED?  Not very likely.

This leaves organizations eager to promote energy efficient lighting in an awkward position. The traditional approach—which was used for CFLs—is to promote purchases of energy-efficient lights with endorsements, incentives, and tax breaks. But these actions will only accelerate a race to the bottom in LED quality … and consumer confidence.  Instead, we need to attach minimum levels of quality, performance, and efficiency for all LEDs before the market is awash in LED junk. This requires a different strategy, including oversight closer to the manufacturing sources.

Eliminating the worst LEDs—rather than simply endorsing the best products—especially benefits the developing countries. LEDs combined with small PVs and batteries are particularly attractive replacements for kerosene lamps and candles used in Africa and other off-grid locations. Poor quality LEDs can be financially catastrophic to a consumer there. Imagine a farmer investing a few weeks income on an LED lamp that fails after only one thousand hours. (See also an eceee column on the Lumina project .)

That’s why we need international action to quickly establish temporary minimum performance specifications for LEDs. A global meeting could create interim specifications that would fill the void until the standards organization can catch up. Twice in the past, coordinated international action has tackled crises in energy efficiency. The International Energy Agency helped establish the 1-watt standard on standby in 2001. Then, in 2005, the IEA coordinated international efficiency specifications for TV Digital Television Adapters, which probably cut global energy use of those products by over 50%. Now it’s time to follow this path for LEDs. These interim specifications won’t be perfect but they will be far better than none. Consumers will buy more energy-efficient LED products sooner if we preserve their good name.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier