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Compact fluorescents: a debacle?

Philips may claim the “L Prize,” a $10 million award from the Department of Energy for any light that can reproduce the color and intensity of a 60-watt bulb using only 1/6 the power. Further, the winning entry must last at least 25 times as long as a standard incandescent.

The L Prize was established, in part, to prevent a recurrence of the problems with CFLs:

> The department considers the introduction of compact fluorescents, today’s alternative to standard bulbs, to have been a debacle.

> At first, the department set no standards for compact fluorescent bulbs and inferior products flooded the market. Consumers rebelled against the bulbs’ shortcomings: the light output from compact fluorescent bulbs was cold and unpleasant, their life was much shorter than claimed, many were large and undimmable, they would not work in cold environments and they contained polluting mercury.

In another article, the Times notes that CFL sales are falling:

> In a September 18 letter to C.F.L. industry stakeholders, Richard Karney, Energy Star products manager, said that national sales of the bulbs have declined 25 percent from their peak in 2007, with sales in some regions such as Vermont and parts of Massachusetts declining 35 to 50 percent…

> Despite more than a decade of costly C.F.L. promotions — including giveaways, discounted prices and rebates — the bulbs have failed to capture the hearts (and sockets) of American consumers. Mr. Karney said that in regions where C.F.L. campaigns have been heaviest, 75 percent of screw-based sockets still contain incandescents. Nationally, about 90 percent of residential sockets are still occupied by incandescents, D.O.E. has reported.

I’m not sure the situation with CFLs is as bad as all that. 25% market share strikes me as pretty decent for a new product from a young industry still working out cost and quality issues. Consumers tend to be pretty conservative, particularly if they lack a strong motivation to switch. I wonder to what extent the slowdown in sales reflects the fact that a) CFLs don’t need to be replaced very often, and b) most early adopters have already switched over.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that much could have gone better with the introduction of the CFLs, and perhaps the L Prize will smooth the transition to the next phase of lighting technology. Philips is the first company to submit a contest entry, which now must undergo a year of testing to determine if it claims the prize.

Philip’s entry is a bulb-shaped LED, and the rub, as always, is cost. The company claims that in the long-term, they can get the cost down to $20 – $25 per bulb. This may not seem like much of a bargain, although the decreased power consumption and long lifetime of the bulbs should more than make up the difference.

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