There are many technological revolutions of varying impact that we will see in the next decade, in fields ranging from entertainment to automobiles to longevity to nanotech to telebusiness. One of the largest revolutions, however, with the potential to improve fuel costs, electricity bills, greenhouse gas emissions, dependence on foreign oil, workplace productivity, and consumer confidence will happen where you least expect it - in the humble light fixtures of your home and workplace.
There are two technologies that have existed for decades, but are reaching cost and quality levels that can displace traditional incandescent lightbulbs. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are both reaching prices of under $2.50 each per unit. CFLs and LEDs not only consume only about 20% of the electricity of a traditional bulb, but can last up to 8 times as long, saving the time and hastle of 8 bulb purchases and replacements.
Of the 2 billion bulbs sold in the US each year, CFLs have jumped from just 1% of the total in 2000 to about 5% in 2005, or 100 million units. To accelerate adoption, Wal-Mart, often a critical catalyst for technology adoption, will start a major education and marketing campaign to sell another 100 million CFLs in the next 12 months.
Let's run some numbers to illuminate the magnitude of this.
The 110 million US households have an average of 20 incandescent bulbs in operation, each lasting a year on average (hence the 2 billion bulbs sold a year). If all 2.2 billion household bulbs are replaced with CFLs, the estimated 8-year average life of a CFL will ensure that replacement sales are only one-eighth of incandescent bulbs, or 250 million CFLs a year. Since a 60 Watt/hour incandescent can be replaced with a CFL that consumes only 15 Watt/hours of electricity, we can calculate :
If the typical household's 20 bulbs average 60 watts (.06 kWh) each and are used for an average of 4 hours a day each, and electricity costs 10 cents per kilowatt/hour, the household spends (20 x .06 x 4 x 365 x $.1) = $175.2 a year. CFLs would save 75%, or $131.4 in electricity costs for such a household each year. Since the electricity consumption curve is not linear and demand is somewhat inelastic, this benefits lower-income households greatly.
At the macro scale, if each of the 2.2 billion bulbs in operation in 110 million households is aggregated, they consume (110m x $175.2) = $19.3 billion in electricity a year. CFLs would save 75% or $14.5 billion for consumers per year.
But wait, it gets better.
In an age of fears about oil imports and atmospheric pollution, people are very wary of the amount of gasoline they consume, but usually have no idea how much oil and coal go into producing the electricity they use. A single 60 Watt bulb used 4 hours a day for a year requires the burning of about 70 pounds of coal. 2.2 billion incandescent bulbs would require 77 million tons of coal per year, and CFLs could reduce 58 million tons out of that, or 6% of total US coal consumption. The emissions savings alone would be the equivalent of reducing US automobile driving by 15%, or about 25 million cars.
LEDs offer similar benefits in energy savings, and while they are not going to benefit from a push by Wal-Mart, are still a neccesary presence as a rival technology to CFLs, each mutually forcing the other to keep up the rate of innovation. One of these two, if not both, will sweep across the world in the next 24 months.
Beyond the lighting revolution in the home, there is also one in the offering for the office, where tubelights, rather than bulbs, are currently used. This brings us to the third technology of this discussion.
A company called Sunlight Direct has a brilliant product that distributes sunlight indoors, no matter how far from a location is from a window. The solar lighting system consists of a roof-mounted 40-inch light-collecting disc that moves to follow the sun during the course of a day, and plastic fiber-optic cables that distribute the light throughout the interior of the building. After the costs of the initial installation, this will not only save businesses the cost of artificial lighting during the day, but will greatly increase the quality of life of employees who can be freed from their tubelit torture. Large retailers stand to save over 20 cents per square foot per year in electricity through the use of this system. Wal-Mart, for example, has about 3000 stores averaging 150,000 square feet each. This amounts to (3000 x 150,000 x $.2) = $90 million in electricity potentially saved per year.
The product will be commercially available by 2007, with the possibility of a residential version by 2009. Of course, some geographies stand to benefit more than others, as we can see from this handy map of US solar energy intensity (from Wikipedia). But taking the marketing even further, we can note that some fast-emerging economies with acute energy shortages also have abundant sunlight, much greater than even in the Southwestern US. A product like Sunlight Direct's is very compelling in India, VietNam, Thailand, and Taiwan, where electricity costs are often much higher than in the US, but near-continuous tropical sunlight is the norm.
All three of these new technologies, and their descendants, will combine into a gale of creative destruction that will shake up a part of daily life that has been essentially unchanged for several decades. Unlike many other such disruptive technologies, the displacement and digestion process will be almost painless and nearly seamless. We all will be the richer for it.
Update (5/29/07) : A CNet article has more details on various lighting technologies.