Better Life: US DOE Funds Lighting Innovation, Creates Jobs


Everyone’s got their material love. For my 2 year-old, it’s his little bunny, Dennis (formerly known as Mr.Hopper--that's him, below).  


Mine is my desk lamp. (Hey, what do you expect from a wonk who pours over legislation night and day?)

Dale's lamp.jpg

Sure, my desk lamp is sleek and silvery gray, with an unassuming presence. But what I love about it most is how it represents the promise of the future: You see, my LED lamp produces as much light with 6 watts of energy as a regular incandescent bulb does with 100 watts. If we can get the same amount of light using 6 percent of the energy, why not the same amount of air conditioning, the same amount of heat, the same amount of washing-machine action and vehicle power?

LEDs didn’t get this fantastic all on their own, though. So let me sing the praises, too, of the US Department of Energy’s Solid-State Lighting program. (Solid-state lighting is the technical term that embraces a few different types of LEDs.) The program is proof that public dollars well-spent can advance new technologies and industries, create both jobs and profits here in the US, and sizably reduce the pollution that disrupts our atmosphere and every year causes tens of thousands of premature deaths from asthma, emphysema and lung cancer.

How is it that with a very small outlay — the total 2010 program budget was a piddly $25.5 million — the US DOE has helped shape the booming LED lighting industry? (And I do  mean booming. Profits are expected to grow by 20 to 30 percent a year over the next decade, with revenue topping $1 billion by 2014.) Quite simply, the DOE did this by understanding the technology’s power and the role the Department could play in shepherding LEDs’ development and success. In doing that, they built a model for fast-tracking commercialization of emerging technologies that can substantially out-perform the stuff we use now.

The Solid State Lighting program got its start in 2003, a few years after white-light LEDs went into production. Since then, the program has created the Next Generation Lighting Industry Alliance, which brings together lighting manufacturers, researchers and designers to discuss the future of technology and develop “a road map about the DOE-funded research program,” explains Jim Brodrick, a SSL project manager at the DOE.

The whip-smart people at the DOE also decided they didn’t want the technology’s success to be hampered by quality-control problems. (That’s a large part of what delayed the popularity of energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, which first rolled off production lines 30 years ago; only in the last five have their sales soared.)

So the DOE set up a testing program, called CALiPER, which now serves as an arbiter of quality worldwide. A little like the folks at Consumer Reports, CALiPER purchases LED lights without manufacturers’ knowledge, tests them, and puts the results on their website. “CALiPER put manufacturers around the world on notice,” says Vrinda Bhandarkar, an LED market analyst at the research firm Strategies Unlimited. “People cite this program as a motivation for improving their products.”

The SSL program has also jumpstarted the development of new products through contests such as their L Prize competitions to replace the common 60-watt incandescent and the PAR 38 halogen, the “second most ubiquitous light bulb in the US,” Brodrick explains.

“When it comes to solid-state lighting,” says Chad Bulman, program manager of the non-profit Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, “the DOE solid-state lighting program is leading the charge.”

In doing this, they’ve helped create jobs at manufacturers like North Carolina-based CREE and Bridgelux, located in Silicon Valley. And they’ve saved huge amounts of money for homeowners and especially retailers and restaurants, who tend to run their lights almost non-stop. The Chili’s restaurant chain, for instance, has switched its 827 company-owned stores from halogens to LEDs, reportedly saving $3.7 million on energy a year. “Energy consumption is a major factor in choosing a lighting technology,” says Kevin Falconer, Senior Director of Design at Chili’s parent company, Brinker International. “But the character of the lighting and how it works in our restaurants was another component in our decision.” At a Chili’s where the company tested LEDs in one portion of the restaurant, Falconer says, “the anecdotal feedback we got from servers and management was ‘When are we going to convert the whole restaurant? Because we like the LEDs.’”

Due to many DOE-promoted innovations, the price of LEDs is expected to plummet in coming years. That’s great news for residents and businesses here in the US. And it’s even greater news for the planet and for the 1.5 billion people in developing countries without easy access to artificial light.

Many of them now use kerosene lanterns for lighting. That kerosene creates massive amounts of pollution and causes life-threatening respiratory problems for the people who breathe in the fumes. In fact, poor residents of developing countries spend “huge amounts of their incomes on kerosene, which keeps them in poverty,” says Evan Mills, a staff scientist at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. LEDs offer “a leapfrogging potential,” Mills believes. Many of these poor people will likely move from kerosene lanterns directly to LEDs ones, without their countries needing to set up expensive transmission lines and polluting power plants. (LED lanterns, like this one developed by aid workers, will likely be powered by very small solar panels.)

So, let’s review: For mere $25.5 million dollars a year — less than 9 cents per American — the DOE Solid-State Lighting program has delivered better lighting that will substantially reduce energy bills for regular people and all kinds of businesses. It has created jobs for the folks who manufacture and install the lighting, and reduced pollution, saving lives here and overseas. Sounds like a pretty good investment of taxpayer dollars to me.