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Please begin with an informative title:

So, there's a lot of excitement of late--and rightly so--about the incredible pace at which electric cars, from extended range vehicles like the Chevy Volt to pure electrics like the Tesla Model S and even entry-level models like the Chevy Spark EV are finally starting to hit their stride. Another couple of years at this rate and they should be going mainstream.

However, there's another mass-market consumer product that's finally entering the mainstream, which I've been keeping my eye on for awhile: The LED lightbulb.

These have been available for years, but until recently, like the Tesla, the price was simply far too high to be practical for most people. A typical, standard bulb (the equivalent of an incandescent 60-100 watt bulb with a regular socket, etc) was running at around $40-$50 apiece just a couple of years ago. At that price, all the "total cost of ownership" arguments in the world simply weren't enough to get over that initial sticker shock, especially with traditional incandescents only costing around $1-$2 apiece (and equivalent CFLs only costing $2-$4).

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However, this situation has quietly changed under the radar. I walked into CostCo the other day and noticed a big display of Feit Electric 75-Watt Replacement, Dimmable LED track/recessed-style lightbulbs for a mere $20 apiece.

I decided to buy one--just one, for the moment--to experiment with swapping out a light in our basement, and it's beautiful. Far brighter than the 75-watt equivalent CFLs that are in the rest of the sockets, and even brighter than the actual 75-watt incandescent floods that were there originally. Dimmable, which was a problem for both CFLs and LEDs until recently. It's a warm, soft light which has also been a problem in the past, and so on.

Sure enough, this isn't just a fluke or a one-time dump by CostCo:

Light Switch: Why You’ll Start Using LED Bulbs This Year

This is the year that could change. Manufacturer Cree came out with a $10 LED bulb last month that replaces a 40-watt incandescent bulb, and one equivalent to a 60-watt bulb that costs $14. Philips says it will have a $10 LED bulb on the market by year-end, and it started selling a $15 one last month. (In Europe, German manufacturer Osram just started selling a 40-watt equivalent LED bulb for about $13).

These LEDs look and act like incandescent bulbs, and experts say the price point is low enough that people will be persuaded to give them a shot.

So, just how much better are the new generation of LEDs compared with the ancient incandescents and even CFLs? Well, consider this:
Incandescent: 75 Watt
Cost: appx. $1.50 (range from around $0.50 - $2.00)
Lifespan: 750 hours (varies)
Avg. Annual Cost (assumes around 3 hours/day at about 11¢/KWh): $9.00

CFL: 75 Watt equivalent (18 Watt)
Cost: appx. $2.50 (range from $1.00 - $4.00)
Lifespan: 10,000 hrs (varies)
Avg. Annual Cost (11¢/KWh): $2.20

LED: 75 Watt equivalent (15 Watt)
Cost: $20.00 (varies)
Lifespan: 25,000 hours / 22 years (varies)
Avg. Annual Cost (11¢/KWh):  $1.80

Total Cost for 25,000 Hours (figure around 20 years or so)

Inc: $50 (for 33 bulbs) + $225 ($9/1,000 hrs x 25) = $275

CFL: $6.25 (for 3 bulbs) + $55 ($2.20/1,000 hrs x 25) = $61.25 (has mercury)

LED: $20 (for 1 bulb) + $45 ($1.80/1,000 hrs x 25) = $65 (no mercury or lead)

As you can see, in terms of total cost, LEDs are still roughly equal to CFLs in terms of total cost over a 20-plus year period. However, they're far better in terms of durability, reliability and recyclability. Plus, while CFLs seem to have hit a plateau in terms of cost and efficiency, LED technology is just getting started...just like electric vehicle technology with the Volt and Tesla.

And compare either one of them to an incandescent, both in terms of cost savings (up to $210 or more PER BULB), electricity used (about 1/5th as much) and replacement headaches (one LED lasts as long as over 30 regular bulbs!)

So, they've just now hit total price parity with CFLs, and from the article above it looks like those prices--which have dropped 50% in just the past 2 years or so--are likely to drop down another 30% or so over the next year. Assume that the $20 bulb I mentioned earlier drops down to $13 or so by the end of this year, possibly below $10 by next summer, and the possibilities are fantastic.

I've seen the future, and it's pretty bright :)

Update: Wow, didn't figure this one would hit the top of the Rec list, but glad to see it did--I'm very much an Eco-Tech Geek and appreciate that so many others are as well!

To answer a few questions in the comments below (some are my own answers, some are from other people that I'm just putting here to make them easier to find):

--Regarding 3-Way Switch LEDs: The first of these JUST entered the market last month!
--Regarding heat radiation: Typical incandescents produce about 5% visible light, 83% infrared radiation (the type of heat that actually makes them hot to the touch) and 12% "conductive" heat (which doesn't get radiated outward, but is instead conducted into a built-in heat sink within the bulb itself). LEDs produce about 15% visible light and 85% conductive heat (that is, they produce no Infrared Radiation (IR)), and are therefore cool to the touch as well as being a good 3x more efficient.
--The CREE lighting company, mentioned in the Time article linked to above, is apparently U.S.-based (North Carolina) and employs American workers.
--Several folks have pointed out that LEDs aren't just a little more durable, they're EXTREMELY durable, very solid, very difficult to break, which means that if you knock over or drop something onto a lamp with an LED, it's very unlikely that you'll break it, which also means not having thousands of tiny shards of glass & filaments all over the place, and no mercury problem (note: as many have pointed out, it's really only a very tiny amount of mercury, but it's still annoying)
--Several folks have also noted that LEDs are excellent for aquariums and other marine/water-based situations and environments, since there's no heat to cause problems with algae, breeding cycles etc etc. The same holds true with interior gardening (grow-lamps).
--CFLs, which were touted as the Next Big Thing about a decade ago, have in practice proven to fall somewhat short in a few areas; their advertised lifespans and quality in the real world hasn't really lived up to the hype in both my (and many commenters) experience. In addition, they have the negatives of being difficult to recycle (mercury, etc) and so forth. By contrast, LEDs seem to, so far, be performing better than conventional wisdom had a few years back.
Update x2: OK, here's some more interesting stuff I've found out about LEDs:

--Regarding use in enclosed fixtures:

If LEDs are at least as energy-efficient as CFLs, why then is there so much concern over their heat and ventilation? Higher efficiency should mean less waste heat.
LEDs and heat

The answer is that LEDs do indeed make less heat; however, they themselves are more sensitive to heat than their incandescent and fluorescent brethren. (Fluorescents work the opposite way; they are sensitive to cold.) As a result of this sensitivity, a major focus of the design of LEDs has been on heat dissipation. That’s why you’ll often see lots of little metal fins on LED replacement bulbs. Those fins help cool the LEDs.
...
But LEDs are still a developing technology. Lumen outputs are increasing, prices are decreasing and, yep, the heat issue is being addressed.

While you are correct to observe that many LED bulbs will have the warning about enclosed fixtures, there are some newer ones that do not have that restriction.

--More info about the CREE LED bulbs mentioned above and several times throughout the comments:

THIS is probably a more reasonable "generic all-purpose lightbulb" to use as a benchmark for LED technology & pricing...the CREE 60-watt equivalent Warm White LED Bulb. (The one I bought from CostCo is a 75-watt equivalent and is directional recessed/flood style).

The CREE is only 9.5 watts, is full-directional (bulb-style), the same size as a traditional incandescent, gives off 800 Lumens, costs about $1.14/year (again, avg. 3 hrs/day), dimmable, etc. It costs $12.97 at Home Depot, or $13.97 for a more neutral/daylight version. they also sell a 6-watt (40-watt equivalent) version for $9.97.

You can also buy a 6-pack of the 60-watt version for $74.82, or $12.47 apiece.

--YES, you can indeed use LEDs in standard track lighting units.

--YES, you can indeed use LEDs with ceiling fan units (this is sometimes an issue with CFLs because of the vibration factor)

Update x3: Since this is still on the Rec list, here's a few more issues addressed (thanks to folks in the comments for bringing these up as well)

--Another big advantage over CFLs: CFLs are very sensitive to cold, which means that they're problematic to use outdoors in the winter, etc., and even when you can use them in those situations, they can take up to a minute or two to brighten up in the cold. Plus, CFLs tend to lose a lot of their life from frequent switching on & off.
--As cynndara (and others) in the comments have noted: When comparing lightbulb specs, it's important to note the LUMENS that they give off, not just the actual wattage (or wattage-equivalent). Lumens = the actual light output; this can vary from bulb to bulb regardless of wattage, depending on quality of components/production and so on.

For example,in my own CostCo example above (the $20 75-watt equivalent floodlight), the brightness is rated at 790 Lumens. The $13 CREE 60-watt bulb linked to in my last update is rated at 800 Lumens, even though it's a lower wattage equivalent and costs 1/3 less! I assume some of the price difference is more about the recessed design than the actual light output.

--One person in the comments notes that while newer LEDs are dimmable, the way that they achieve this is by using a technique called pulse-width modulation (PWM), which supposedly can cause issues for people with migraines in certain situations (and depending on the quality of the bulb). I haven't confirmed this, but it's worth looking into.
--Depending on what state you live in and what store you frequent, there may be instant or mail-in rebates which can drop the up-front costs even further (either the standard promos from the stores/manufacturers, or legally-mandated rebates from the utility).
Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Brainwrap on Sat Jun 22, 2013 at 10:38 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Climate Change SOS, DK GreenRoots, and Good News.

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