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Would You Buy A $40 Light Bulb?

Marc Gunther's picture
FORTUNE magazine

Marc Gunther is a writer and speaker who focuses on business and the environment. He worked for 12 years as a senior writer at FORTUNE magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. His most...

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  • Feb 15, 2011


Maybe you should.

This week, Philips Lighting said that its AmbientLED 12.5 watt bulb — which, just to confuse you, is also sold under the Philips EnduraLED brand — has qualified for a EPA’s Energy Star rating. That means that it’s an efficient and, quite possibly  cost-effective alternative to the 60-watt bulb, even with a $39.97 list price at Home Depot.

Here’s how the math works, at least according to Philips:

A conventional 60-watt bulb lasts about 1,000 hours, uses 60 watts of electricity (duh) and costs $180 to run for 25,000 hours.

The LED equivalent lasts 25,000 hours (nearly three years if you left it on 24/7), uses 12.5 watts and costs $37.50 to run for 25,000 hours.

That assumes electricity costs of 12.5 cents/kwh, slightly higher than average across the US but a lot less that you pay in high-cost states like California.

Practically a bargain, no?

The Energy Star rating matters because it means that the bulb, which is evidently the first LED bulb in its category to qualify, can earn you a rebate from your local utility. There’s more on the rebates here from the U.S. Department of Energy. Each state has its own rebate program, forms to fill out, etc. Fun.

Better news is that for now Phillips is offering a $10 cash rebate on the bulb.

CNET’s Martin Lamonica wrote last fall:

I have been using an early production version of the Philips bulb around my house for the last few days. At first blush, I’d say this is the sort of product that could finally help nudge out the beloved, if wasteful, incandescent bulb.

Philips says that it is also the first and only  company to enter the U.S. Department of Energy’s L Prize contest, which calls for an LED equivalent to the 60-watt bulb that can produce 900 lumens using less than ten watts of electricity. The L Prize is a government-backed competition to encourage innovation in lighting.

LED light bulbs, by the way, offer significant advantages over curlicue CFLs. They contain no mercury, turn on instantly, last longer and are more efficient. GE, Osram Sylvania, Cree and EarthLED also make LED bulbs, which can range in price from $20 to $80.

If you’re balking at those price tags, you’re surely not alone. In fact, you can now understand first-hand one of the big reasons why we waste so much energy in the U.S.: It’s very hard to persuade people, even supposedly rational business people, to spent money today to save money in the future.

Maybe you’re a tenant, and you won’t be able capture the operating costs savings of the bulb. Maybe there’s a chance you’ll move soon. Maybe you don’t have $40 to spare right now. Corporate executives and the owners of commercial buildings face these kinds of obstacles, too.

Remember that next time someone talks about how easy it is to pick the low hanging fruit.

Photo by Starfish235, from Lab Daze

Christina Nunez's picture
Christina Nunez on Feb 15, 2011

Good post. We’ve definitely seen this effect at National Geographic’s 360º Energy Diet (, where nine households around the world are in week 4 of a 12-week challenge to lower their carbon footprint. Time and again, the bloggers say that they would like to switch to LEDs, but are slow to do so because of the cost. And this is a motivated bunch — consider how many people in the U.S. and elsewhere do not value saving energy and are faced with this choice.

Marc Gunther's picture
Marc Gunther on Feb 17, 2011

Thanks to all of you for your comments. It’ll be interesting to read the user reviews as the bulbs begin to sell on websites like Word of mouth could also help spread adoption of LEDs. Most people won’t take a chance on a $40 light bulb without some assurance that the light is high quality, and that they actually will save money. I haven’t bought one yet…but I am ready to give them a try.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Feb 17, 2011

I wouldn’t buy this bulb.  

I buy bulbs like the Home Depot EcoSmart 14 watt CFL, which puts out the same 800 lumens as this LED.  

The Home Depot CFL costs, according to Consumer Reports, $1.50 each in a pack of 4, and is rated by CU to last for 10,000 hours, will stand up to rapid cycling, is bright compared to other CFL lamps of the same wattage, has a better warm up time than other CFLs, etc.  

I could buy 26 of these Home Depot CFLs instead of 1 of these Philips LEDs.  The efficiency of this Home Depot CFL is slightly lower than the LED, i.e. at 60 lumens per watt compared to 64 lumens per watt, but, if I bought 100 Home Depot CFLs for $150 dollars instead of 100 LEDs for $3,937, I could use the $3,787 I saved to put more insulation in the roof of my home, seal up leaks in the home, send a few thousand emails to my state governor urging conversion of the state coal fired generators to nuclear, etc.  Supposedly, the LED will last 2.5 times as long, which would reduce my projected savings for the 100 bulbs, perhaps, to a mere $1,500 or so, but it tends to remain to be seen how long these things will actually last.

McKinsey put out a good chart showing the relative cost of various ways of reducing the carbon footprint of most things, which Al Gore republished after he removed the word nuclear from it, lest he be condemned by his peers for allowing his readers to believe that converting the electricity generation sector to nuclear power from coal would be far more cost effective in lowering the carbon footprint of civilization and hence affordable and hence more likely to get done than more practical things such as going to LED lighting at this cost for this gain.  

Marc Gunther's picture
Thank Marc for the Post!
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