When I drove to the offices of a start-up called Switch Lighting last week, I wasn't expecting much. A company representative had promised to show me something amazing—an alternative light bulb that uses a fraction of the energy of a traditional incandescent bulb and lasts 20 times as long, but that plugs into a standard socket and produces the same warm, yellowish, comforting glow that we're all used to seeing when we flip the switch.
I'd heard that pitch before. Energy-efficient bulbs that shine like incandescents are the holy grail of the lighting industry. The effort has become more urgent in the last few years, as governments around the world have imposed regulations to phase out incandescent bulbs. In the United States, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, whose light bulb-related provisions will go into effect next year, requires greater efficiency from all light bulbs on the market; the act effectively outlaws the traditional incandescent bulb by 2014. The phase-out has created a surprising political outcry, with some people even stocking up on bulbs. That's because today's main alternative, compact-fluorescent bulbs, are awful. They've got three main shortcomings: They're ugly; they contain mercury, which can be extremely hazardous if the bulbs are broken; and most importantly, they put out harsh, white light that many people (myself included) find unbearable.
Switch Lighting claims to have solved all of those problems. When I arrived at Switch, Brett Sharenow, the company's chief strategy officer, showed me two lamps. Inside one was a standard 75-watt incandescent bulb. Switch's 75-watt replacement bulb, which uses only 16 watts of power, was plugged into the other. The lampshades prevented me from seeing the bulbs directly—I couldn't tell which lamp contained which bulb. When Sharenow turned on the lamps, the light from each lamp looked identical. The moment was completely undramatic, and that was the point. Switch has spent years developing bulbs that produce something thoroughly unexceptional—light that looks exactly like what we're used to.
Turned off, a Switch bulb looks like an incandescent from the future. It's got the same pear shape as a standard bulb, but it's divided into two sections. The bottom half is composed of a wavy metallic structure that looks like the wings of a badminton birdie. Above that is a thick glass orb filled with a cooling agent and a bank of LEDs, which are semiconductors that produce light. Because LEDs use a fraction of the energy required to light up the filament in an incandescent bulb, they're seen as the next great advance in light bulbs. LEDs have advantages over CFLs, too—they don't contain dangerous chemicals, and they can be used in lamps with dimmer switches (only certain CFLs are dimmable). A host of start-ups, as well as many of the giants in the lighting industry, are working on LED bulbs that mimic incandescents. At the lighting industry's annual trade show in Philadelphia in May, several companies showed off their LED technology. Switch was among a handful that unveiled prototypes of a 100-watt-equivalent LED bulb, which is considered a kind of tipping point for LEDs—if someone can make an LED bulb that looks as great as a 100-watt incandescent, the LED bulb will have finally arrived.
That seems increasingly likely. Switch will release its 60- and 75-watt equivalent bulbs to retailers in October, and its 100-watt-equivalent bulb will go on sale in December. There's a small hitch, though: At the moment, only the 60- and 75-watt alternatives are available in "warm white," the yellowish color that we associate with incandescents; the 100-watt-equivalent bulb will put out "neutral white," a bluer color that more closely resembles the light from CFL bulbs. Switch will release a warm 100-watt-equivalent bulb sometime next year, Sharenow says. (The 60- and 75-watt-alternative bulbs are also available in neutral white, which Sharenow says is a popular color in many different places around the world—people in Japan, India, and other Asian countries can't stand the yellow light we find comforting, Sharenow says.)
Switch's 60-watt-replacement bulb will sell for about $20, and the 75-watt and 100-watt replacements will cost slightly more. This will be cheaper than other LED bulbs—Philips * sells a 60-watt replacement LED bulb that goes for about $45, for instance. But $20 for a light bulb still sounds expensive. Incandescent bulbs sell for about 50 cents to $1 per bulb, and CFL bulbs have been approaching that same low price. LED bulbs seem to break the bank by comparison.
But that's only until you do the math. On average, an incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours—that's about a year, if you keep it on for about three hours a day. Electricity in America also costs about 11 cents per kilowatt hour (that's the average; it varies widely by region). In other words, a 50-cent, 60-watt incandescent bulb will use about $6.60 in electricity every year. Switch's 60-watt-equivalent LED, meanwhile, uses only 13 watts of power, so it will cost only $1.43 per year. The Switch bulb also has an average lifespan of 20,000 hours—20 years. If you count the price of replacing the incandescent bulb every year, the Switch bulb will have saved you money by its fourth year. Over 20 years, you'll have spent a total of about $142 for the incandescent bulbs (for electricity and replacement bulbs) and less than $50 for Switch's 60-watt bulb. (I made a spreadsheet showing my calculations.)
The problem, of course, is that people don't buy light bulbs that way—a lot can happen in 20 years, and it seems silly to think of light bulbs as a long-term investment vehicle. (Also, neither Switch nor any other light bulb company guarantees that their bulbs will last that long.) Sharenow concedes this line of thinking, and he's got two answers. First, he argues that as LEDs are mass-produced over time, their prices will plummet—he estimates that a year from now, Switch's 60-watt-equivalent bulb will sell for under $15, and could hit $10 the year after that. At that price, Switch's new bulbs will be much harder to resist. The other advantage is that Switch's bulbs are beautiful—the company has already seen interest from hotels, department stores, and other companies that are happy to pay for high-end decor. These firms will save money on energy and replacement bulbs and look good doing it. And once we see these bulbs showing up in fancy shops and hotels, we may become much more interested in getting them for our homes.
Besides, we won't have much choice. With traditional bulbs going away, we're going to need some other source of light, and nobody likes CFLs. LEDs are the light bulbs of the future. And I'm putting my money—well, a little bit of my money—where my mouth is. I'm buying two of the Switch bulbs for the lamps in our living room. Based on the demo I saw, we'll never notice the difference, at least until we get our utility bills at the end of the month.
Correction, July 6, 2011: This article originally misspelled the name of the electronics company Philips. (Return to the corrected sentence.)