In mid-December, the California Energy Commission (CEC) formalized the definition of a “Quality LED Bulb” and only bulbs that meet that specification could become eligible for residential rebate programs from the local public utilities starting in 2014. While officials have framed this as a kin to an Energy Star “Plus” approach, it does reflect a significant leap forward in performance – requiring a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of 90 with an R9 of ≥50, a CCT (Correlated Color Temperature) of 2,700 or 3,000 K and a tighter window of McAdams ellipses, (4 versus 7 steps), an input power factor of ≥0.9 at full load, mandatory dimmablity to <10 percent and a minimum 5 year free replacement warranty as some key requirements. Interestingly, some Energy Star lamp requirements such as efficacy (lm/W) are not even part of the scope. Further details on the California Quality Bulb motivation and requirements can be found in the following article.
What I wanted to explore is the possible market implications. First I needed to gauge how many bulbs might meet these requirements now so I went to the LED Lighting Facts Search tool and narrowed my focus to two mainstream bulb types; the omni-directional A-lamp and the directional R/PAR30 commonly used in down lights. For the initial screen, I searched for CRI > 90 and 2,700 to 3,000 K CCT. In the A-lamp category, there were 214 entries. Only four (1.9 percent), including the Philips L-Prize bulb, complied with the initial screen.
For the BR/PAR30 there were 369 entries. Eighteen (4.9 percent) met the search parameters, but once different beam angle/base options were eliminated, this number was reduced to four model types. The California specification has other constraints which further reduced the number of matches. For example, the Philips L-Prize bulb winner has a power factor of < 0.8, which eliminated it and within the selected bulbs only LEDnovations and Sylvania offered a 5 year warranty. Some of the other bulbs did not meet the dimmable to <10 percent requirement. Clearly, only a very small fraction of the LED bulbs in this database met the high level CEC quality bulb specifications today and of those, the PAR lamps identified were not targeting residential applications, but commercial retail lighting where high CRI can make the difference on the sales floor.
California represents >10 percent of US households and is one of the leading states in advancing energy saving and environmental initiatives so it can be a bellwether for emerging trends. Some may recall that at one time within the automotive industry there were cars that had “California Emissions” while the rest of the country followed a less stringent standard, now we moving to uniform 50 states emissions standards due in part to California leading the way.
During the hearing process, there were concerns by some manufacturers on the incremental LED cost driven by the high CRI/warm CCT and tight four-step McAdams ellipse requirements. Moreover, with traditional “phosphor converted” white LEDs approaches these high CRI requirements translated into an efficiacy penalty on the order of 15 to 20 percent, which also drives up the cost. As more LEDs are required, this impacts the driver and heat-sink cost as more power must be converted and dissipated for the same lumen output.
The intent of this voluntary specification is to encourage industry to develop energy efficient bulbs that target a significantly “closer to incandescent” lighting quality than what is currently on the market. The question remains, at what level of rebates does the added cost to meet the specification drive manufacturers to develop more products that meet the goals of the “California quality LED bulb” and at what price point will consumers open their wallets. This is not an easy question as LED technology continues to improve and evolve in a rapid manner.
If we consider 2012 rebate levels in California on the Philips “L-Prize” bulb, some utilities had residential rebate levels between $15 to $25, which lowered the price in Sacramento for example to sub $30 closing the price gap between less expensive LED bulbs on the shelves. While the L-Prize is arguably a special case, California based Pacific Gas & Electric did a “large retailer” pricing study in 2011 on PAR30 lamps priced at $39.97 and found a $10 instant rebate increased weekly sales by 279 percent. Clearly rebates matter, especially around critical consumer price points. The challenge moving forward for this initiative is getting more manufacturers to develop bulbs targeting the specification and raising consumer awareness on the price-performance benefits of buying a “California Quality LED bulb”.