Illumination Intermission: What 25,000 Dancing LEDs on a Bridge Look Like

Artist Leo Villareal has transformed San Francisco's Bay Bridge into the largest LED sculpture in the world!


Artist Leo Villareal has transformed San Francisco's Bay Bridge into the largest LED sculpture in the world. You've got two years to check it out in person.


This LED Bulb Is Officially the Greenest Lightbulb Ever

It clocks in at under 10 watts and it won its makers $10 million in a government contest.

This lightbulb is officially the greenest replacement for a 60-watt bulb. It’s a light-emitting diode—commonly known as an LED—bulb made by the Dutch company Philips, it clocks in at under 10 watts, and it’s a bright, Big Bird yellow when it’s not illuminated. It also won its makers $10 million in the Department of Energy’s L Prize competition, which sought “high performance, energy-saving replacements” for the incandescents most of us still use.

If consumers are worried they’ll be burned by buying this bulb, they shouldn't be: It was “probably the most tested lightbulb in history,” said James Brodrick, the Energy Department’s light program manager. As part of its application, Philips submitted 2,000 bulbs. Two hundred of them went through testing that determined that they met the contest guidelines: They had to be under 10 watts, produce “warm white” light (yes, there’s a technical way to measure that), and work with dimmer switches. Another bunch were subjected to high and low temperatures, humidity, vibration, and other stress-testing. Two hundred more went for “lumen maintenance” testing. (LEDs don’t burn out, like incandescents. Instead, their light dims over time.) To meet the competition standards, the bulbs would have to dim by no more than 70 percent over 25,000 hours of use. This part of the testing took the longest—the team left the bulbs on for 7,000 hours, or about nine and half months, before they extrapolated the amount of light the bulbs would maintain.

But all of those technical measures don’t matter if people don’t like the light the bulbs produce. Thirteen hundred of the bulbs Philips provided went into field assessments in places like Raley’s Supermarket in Sacramento, a McDonalds in Jackson, an art museum in Oregon, residences in Martha’s Vineyard, and a public housing apartment in New Hampshire. The Department of Energy reports that “the majority of respondents perceived the amount and color of light as ‘just right.’” The “vast majority” would also recommend the lights to other people.

The only problem? The bulb will likely be rather expensive. It won’t come on the market until 2012, and Philips hasn’t said how much it will cost. But the price could top $40.

That’s a lot to pay for a single bulb. But consider this: In 2010 an estimated 971 million 60-watt bulbs were installed across the country. If everyone switched to these more efficient bulbs, we’d save $3.9 billion in electricity a year and keep 20 million metric tons of carbon from shooting into the atmosphere. Plus, the 60-watt bulbs we use now generally last for only 1,000 to 3,000 hours, which means you have to change each lightbulb every year or two. If this new bulb lasts for 25,000 hours (and it could last for more), you could use it for about 35 years without buying a new one.

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Stop Living in the Past; Ditch Your Incandescent Bulbs

You wouldn’t drive a 1950s-era car if smog still poured out its tailpipe. Why use a light bulb designed in the 19th century?

New York restauranteurs these days go in for soft-lit nostalgia by hanging low-wattage bulbs above deep booths in dark-paneled rooms. Today it seems as if Republicans share this obsession, as they’ll likely vote yes on a bill that would keep in circulation light bulbs no more technically advanced than the ones Thomas Edison invented.

In 2007, a Republican Congress and a Republican president passed into law a measure that increased energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. Now Republicans are calling that measure a “ban” on incandescents, and the bill they’ll vote on today, the BULB Act, would repeal the standards on which they agreed four years back. Since the passage of the efficient bulbs law, conservatives across the country have rebelled against the standards, calling them an infringement on their rights as consumers; interior designers have joined with them over concerns that newfangled bulbs—your CFLs and your LEDs—cast "ugly" light on a well-appointed room.

Interior designers, at least, can rest easy: Incandescents aren’t disappearing from the market. Lighting companies have been selling bulbs that meet the new standards, set to take effect next year, since 2009.

But even if we were stuck with those twisty CFL bulbs that provoke such dissatisfaction, making light bulbs more efficient would be the right choice. Think about it this way: Like Edison-era incandescents, old cars have a certain aesthetic charm. But if cars depended on the same technology they did when they were first invented, we’d all have died of smog inhalation by now. Instead, beginning in the 1960s, state governments set standards for how much pollution could spill out of tailpipes. The federal government followed in 1970 with the first nationwide tailpipe emissions standard.

It’s easy to internalize the connection between pollution and auto emissions. Turn on an old car and dirty smoke comes out the rear end. When a driver turns off a car, the tailpipe emissions cease. Turn on a light bulb, however, and carbon pollution pours out of a coal-fired power plant that's miles away and out of sight. And flicking off a light switch doesn’t turn off the power plant.

If the clouds of carbon that light bulbs create were emitted from our homes, perhaps light bulb manufacturers would have had to find a way to make bulbs more efficient long ago. The bulbs that are being phased out convert 90 percent of the electricity they use into heat and only 10 percent into light. The new efficiency standards require bulbs be 30 percent more energy efficient.

The new incandescents meet that standard, but CFLs and LEDs are far ahead of it. Incandescent manufacturers have until 2020 to reach a minimum standard of 45 lumens per watt, a threshold that CFL bulbs already meet. CFL lighting may not have the quiet glow of the bulbs that the world has used for more than a century. But using even the more efficient incandescent bulb available now would be like driving a car that was manufactured in the 1970s, just after the first tailpipe emission standards came into effect—it still means dumping more carbon than is necessary into the atmosphere. The more people buy CFLs and LEDs, the sooner they’ll be casting more varied and quieter light. It’s already happening, in fact. And even if it wasn't, tastes change. In 50 years, perhaps hip New Yorkers will be flooding to restaurants lit with that certain quality of light that only 2010-era CFL bulbs can produce.

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