Behold the Revolution: LED Bulbs Are Now as Cheap as Incandescents

hand holds LED bulb in palm above a box of new lightbulbs

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Who would have imagined that this would happen so fast?

Years ago, Bill Gates looked at the computer revolution and noted that, "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.” Today it would be a flying car running on sunshine that costs a dime.

But in many ways, the LED revolution has been just as breathtaking. I couldn’t help but smile when I read about a recent deal from a certain omnipresent online company, offering a dozen 800 lumen Philips LED bulbs for twenty-two bucks.


This is truly extraordinary, a transformation that we have watched in in real time on TreeHugger. The first LED bulb we showed on TreeHugger in 2007 punched out 594 lumens and cost $70. The post got 174 comments.

A Bulb from the Future! It Looks Like it Belongs on a Spaceship!

Philips AmbientLED 12.5 watt LED Lightbulb photo

Then TreeHugger emeritus Mike spent a few years reviewing every new bulb; I loved his review of the Philips AmbientLED 12.5-watt A19 LED lightbulb: “A Bulb from the Future! It Looks Like it Belongs on a Spaceship!” Exciting times. It looked weird, cost $40, and was rated for 25,000 hours. The two-buck Philips bulbs selling today are rated for ten years, give the same 800 lumens running at 8.5 watts.

ge led light bulb review photo

About the same time, Mike reviewed GE bulbs with big radiator fins that cost $50 and drew 9 watts to pump out 450 lumens.

Since then, the bulbs have been getting consistently better and cheaper. But energy efficient bulbs were still controversial; even certain real estate developers had opinions.

Now the Department of Energy has been considering rolling back legislation that would demand minimum 45 lumens per watt by 2020 that was in George Bush’s 2007 light bulb law, but it’s moot, the market has done it already and not even Fox Republicans are buying incandescent bulbs to own the Libs anymore. This particular revolution is over and the LEDs won, and will continue to even as Trump puts tariffs on Chinese LEDs.

What’s next?

1. Better CRI (Colour Rendering Index)

Installing bulb

© Cree bulb

Most LED bulbs are phosphoric -- they work like fluorescents, where an ultra-violet LED excites the whitish phosphor to fluoresce. The output of cheap bulbs is spiky, unlike incandescent bulbs which are smooth. The goal is to make LED output as even as incandescent. Cree has been working on this and revamped their entire line; Al Safarikas of Cree explained why CRI is important:

I mean a higher CRI. I mean a better adherence to keeping the light on the Planckian black body line. What you see with a lot of inexpensive LED bulbs is that they seem weird, the light seems a little alien, you say “that doesn’t look right” and what it really means is that it is off the Planckian black body line. If you want to build a bulb of higher quality you want to make sure it stays on the black body line. You want to make sure that the color rendering is very good. Non-technical people simply look at it and say “things look better. I see better. I perceive better.” Older technologies and cheap LEDs will often stray from that.

2. Phosphoric bulbs will give way to full RGB

CC BY 2.0. George Nelson Bubble Lamp with Hue LED bulbs/ Lloyd Alter

George Nelson Bubble Lamp with Hue LED bulbs/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Most of the lighting companies are making RGB bulbs now, where instead of phosphors, there are red, green and blue LEDs that you can mix to your taste, adjusting your colour temperature like your room temperature or changing the colours completely to whatever you want. They will all talk to you, your phone, Alexa, Siri or your Roomba.

3. Goodbye, Edison Base

Ikea transformer

Ikea transformer/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It’s crazy that we have new LED bulbs screwing into a 110 year old base designed to carry 300 watts at 120 volts, for bulbs that run on low voltage direct current at 10 watts. Computers change their sockets every couple of years; it’s time for bulbs to run on USB style sockets and for the power supply to be separated from the bulb, as it is on notebook computers. Ikea does this now with some portable lamps; there is a little transformer that plugs into the outlet, with its own little 2-pin socket going to low voltage wiring that feeds the fixture.

4. Goodbye, base. Who needs you anymore?


© IKEA/ VIKT wall lamp

Bulbs now last as long as fixtures, and soon will be integrated right into them, like this ugly IKEA fixture. This has already started, there are many fixtures available now where the bulbs are wired in and are never changed, but more and more will be like this. A few years ago I noted that "we are in a weird, in between time when the designers and manufacturers have not caught up with the technology, and one has far more options mixing the LEDs with the Edison bases with existing fixture designs." We are still there.

5. Goodbye, bulbs. You are part of the building now.

LED carpeting

© LED carpeting

You can get LED encrusted wallpaper now; soon LEDs will be a standard part of the building fabric, built right into the walls. As OLEDs become more common we may have glowing ceilings and walls and no fixtures at all.

That’s the future, but the present is pretty exciting, when LED bulbs are as cheap as incandescents used to be.