Let there be LEDs

In the King James version of Genesis, "God said Let there be Light and there was light." Fortunately he didn't have to check with Congress. Lawmakers have been wrangling over new national energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Lee Cowan:

'Tis the season when it seems all some families want for Christmas is a bit more wattage.

They're the houses that have the extra twinkle to their trees - more deck to their halls. If you didn't know better, you might think Christmas was a celebration of the electric light bulb itself.

But those who are "especially-festive" are not the only people passionate about light. Turns out this year, light - and light bulbs - are at the heart of a burning debate.

"I believe in liberty for light bulbs," said GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachman who, along with other conservative pundits, has been attacking what they call a "government meddling" over one of the most popular bulbs around, the watt-sucking incandescent.

It all stems from a law signed by George W. Bush in 2007 requiring that our most popular light bulbs be at least 25 percent more energy efficient starting next year. But conservatives complain those standards render the lowly, old-fashioned orb obsolete -- restricting consumer choice. 

But this weekend, Congress pulled the funding to enforce that law, giving the incandescent a temporary reprieve.

But the fight is far from over. Efficiency standards are still law and fans of Thomas Edison's finest know the switch to more modern bulbs is only a matter of time.

"There's a push-back from a lot of people who say, 'I'm sitting in my living room. I want a warm, comfortable light.' And that's the word they use, warm. That's always the word that people will use, warm," said David DiLaura, a lighting engineer and historian who has a bit of a crush on the incandescent.

Even though it gives off more heat than light, Edison's fuzzy filament filled our homes with a glow that became the standard for more than 130 years.

Its first real challenge came from the compact fluorescent bulb. But that didn't go over too well.

"If you take an incandescent lamp out of someone's socket, and you put in a compact florescent lamp that doesn't have the right color, even though it's more efficient, they're going to say, 'What have you done to my light?'" said DiLaura. "And they are saying that."

In the days Edison was fine-tuning his invention, most of the world was lit by gas - essentially fire.

In fact it was always that way. From campfires to candles to kerosene lamps, the color of flame was the light of our lives.

What Edison finally captured in 1879 was that same light in a bottle (or in his case a vacuum tube).

"It's very easy to look at a lamp now, probably rightly, as an almost purely technological artifact, made by machine, maybe even assembled by machine - the exact opposite is the case with these early lamps. Virtually every aspect of these devices had to be built by hand," said Marc Greuther, the Curator of Industry at the Henry Ford Museum, where Thomas Edison's lab has been recreated down to the tiniest detail.

"It wasn't just the bulb. It wasn't just the lamp. It was wiring, conduits, switches, fuses, generators," Greuther said. "But of course the lamp is the most visible part of it; it was what most people were interested in."

But even after Edison's invention electrified parts of lower Manhattan, the rest of the country didn't have the budget for bulbs.

It wasn't until 1910 - almost 30 years later - that using light bulbs became cheaper than gas.

"That's happened with every other lighting technology," said DiLaura. "It's been introduced, it's very expensive, and you simply wait enough and long enough, and the price comes down."

Which is where light bulb manufacturers are right now - having to change the public mind-set from the $1.99 disposable idea of lighting to the $25-a-bulb light that's more like an appliance.

"You know, you might install a light bulb in your foyer when your kids are born, and that light bulb will still be in there working, no problems, when the kids go off to college. That's a totally different way to think about lighting," said Ed Crawford, who heads the North American Lighting Division at Philips, the world's largest lighting company.

Like the rest of us, he watched the first jump from incandescents to energy-efficient bulbs with a bit of a cringe.

"Some of the early compact florescent products, they were not ready for prime time," Crawford said. "They buzzed, they had lousy color, they made everything kind of grey-ish, green."

Edison's glowing filament gave off nearly every color of the rainbow, especially reds and yellows. Duplicating it isn't easy.

Too much of any one color is obviously uncomfortable, says Philips' Daniel Blitzer, whether its blue or vivid green.

"We lose our sense of humanity," said Blitzer. "In fact, we go vaguely reptilian."

But perhaps the most important is red. Too much is Martian, but for humans not enough red can be disastrous.

Blitzer demonstrated in on Lee's hands: "If you have no red light, nothing bounces off the red pigments - it only bounces off the blue of your veins, and that looks eerie."

"Awful!" said Cowan.

The answer for Philips was a bulb that just won a $10 million prize from the Department of Energy. While it may look like those orange bug lights of old, this is an LED Philips says all but replicates the warm glow of the incandescent.

It does everything consumers are used to in a bulb, except it uses 9 watts instead of 60 watts.

"The guts of it have to be wildly different," said Cowan.

"The guts are completely different," said Crawford, showing off the LEDs inside.

  • Lee Cowan

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