The debate about LED lights seems to be intensifying. Specifically, as momentum, attention from more major electronics manufacturers, government assistance, and commercial success have propelled the development and marketing of LED lighting, these devices have come under increased scrutiny. Are they really more energy efficient than other lighting when viewed in terms of their lifetime electricity consumption, from manufacturing to disposal? Does installing LED light strips and bulbs really result in a net savings in a few years? These kinds of questions are being examined scientifically by experts across the globe. And though the debate continues despite the inexorable tide of LED development, it seems that the answer that keeps coming back is, “Yes, LEDs really are better, though there are some cases where this is only slightly so, than any other commercially available lighting option.”
There are a few points to consider in this debate, and getting a strong grasp requires being able to focus on specific issues as well as to understand holistic comparisons between LED lights and other lighting options. CFLs, some of which are as efficient in terms of lumens per watt as LEDs, contain mercury gas that is a dangerous neurotoxin when inhaled. So if they break in the house, for example, a family may experience ill effects. But even if they are disposed of, they may break in a landfill, leaching mercury into the soil and thus contaminating water supplies. LEDs don’t contain any mercury and release far less of it, almost none, during production. Furthermore, LEDs produce almost no heat. Though this is part of why they are so efficient, it is also a benefit by itself, as it makes LEDs much safer for a number of uses. LED’s can’t burn anyone by mistake, and don’t pose a fire hazard if, for example, some portable LED light strips are left on and touching a curtain. These kinds of benefits are difficult to quantify but add to the overall sense that they are a superior lighting source.
A recent article in the technology section of The New York Times went to great lengths to determine if LEDs are actually more energy efficient. The author spoke to experts on LED, CFL, and incandescent manufacturing and collected corporate data to determine how much electricity is used per unit during the manufacturing and shipping process, taking into account specific details like the fact that most LEDs are produced in China to come to a Life Cycle Assessment of LED lamps. The journalist’s evaluation was that “the difference between incandescents, CFLs, and LEDs is significant.” Though LED production and shipping is at about the same efficiency levels as the other lights, because they use at most 20 percent as much electricity as incandescents, and between 50 and 90 percent as much as comparable CFLs, they are overall far more efficient. Furthermore, they become increasingly so the longer they are used, and are getting more so with every technological advance.
The next and final comparison is cost. LEDs cost more, up to 20 times more per unit, than incandescents, and at least double the price of CFLs. People who want to buy LEDs are often floored by the price. But this extra upfront cost is defrayed by the lower cost per lumen of light and the 40,000 hour lifespan, more than ten times that of an incandescent and five times that of a CFL. But that is the rub. How many hours of use are necessary before the LED pays for itself? Tech and LED blogs go back and forth about this number, but the general consensus is that in a home where lights are only on for three to five hours a day, it will take a few years to recoup the costs. The recovery of the investment and then potential “earning” beyond that point as they continue to operate for less is inevitable, but it will take time.
The simple point is that perhaps LEDs aren’t better than CFLs for consumers in every case, but they do offer a slew of advantages that, when combined, makes them a more efficient and responsible choice in most circumstances.