A better bulb? Cree unveils latest in lighting

The new bulb from Cree

I hope there’s not a brawl at the staff meeting later today at the Alliance to Save Energy.

New LED light bulbs that the manufacturer claims to be nothing short of revolutionary arrived in the office of president Kateri Callahan this morning. She’d been anticipating this, and she really wanted to keep them for herself. But instead, she’ll auction them off.

The bulbs are the latest development from North Carolina lighting manufacturer Cree. They’re meant to bring the advancements — in price and performance — that will finally budge consumers who are hesitant to give up their old, woefully inefficient incandescent light bulbs.

This bulb “will change the way people use light forever,” said Cree VP of corporate marketing Mike Watson, adding, “a bold statement, I know.”

What’s important, he said, is that the 40-watt version of the new bulbs breaks the $10 barrier — a price point that consumers are reluctant to go above — and that the bulb looks and acts just like an old incandescent, except that it isn’t an incandescent.

“The biggest thing since a light bulb is a light bulb,” is Cree’s marketing slogan.

Like other LEDs, it’s 85 percent more efficient and will last 25 years. At this price, consumers can recover the cost of their investment in a year.

Beyond that, the deal-breaker of the past — performance — is now a deal-maker, Cree says. They think they’ve achieved a quality of light that matches that of the beloved incandescent.

The thing that Cree learned, Watson said, is “people actually loved the shape and the light” of the old bulbs. Partly, because it was simply familiar.

That shape is something an entire industry of lamp shade makers and others have based their products on.

As for the light, it came out of the center of the old incandescents. That heat-producing filament also produced a “compact, warm, omni-directional glow.”

Those swirly CFLs — which Watson likened to pig tails — never were bright enough or warm enough. And there was that whole brouhaha because they contained mercury.

“A failed experiement,” Cree has dubbed it.

Then LEDs came along, and they just weren’t as bright. The light was blue-er. They were hugely expensive. They had funny fins and other odd shapes.

Watson has colorful pejoratives for those, too: Frankenbulbs. Robot bulbs. Alien bulbs.

From a consumer standpoint, Cree has been trying to reproduce that light that people are so familiar with and comfortable with, but in LED form.

“In one way, it seems kind of anti-technology and progress,” Watson acknowledged. “In another way, we want to drive 100 percent LED adoption. You have to get consumers to try. You have to have them feel comfortable with the technology.”

In recent years, the whole lighting industry has been transforming.

Advocates credit the passage in 2007 — under President Bush — of new efficiency standards for lighting. It wasn’t a “ban” on incandesents. But it meant that unless these bulbs changed, they would be outta here.

The standards applied to 100-watt bulbs beginning in 2012, and they’re progressing through the other wattages.

Marianne DiMascio, an effficiency standards expert with the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a nonprofit that works to “advance, win and defend” new standards for everything from washing machines to light bulbs, called the new Cree bulbs “really interesting.”

Other manufacturers, notably Phillips, are in the same ballpark when it comes to price, brightness and the warmth of the light.

But she has not tried one of the Cree bulbs and couldn’t evaluate the quality of the light otherwise.

“It’s all going in the right direction,” she said. “We’re getting more efficient, more affordable.”

Callahan at the ASE, a nonprofit advocacy group, was celebrating, too.

“We have been saying since the passage of the light bulb standards in 2007 that consumers would get higher quality products at lower prices and have a lot of choice in gthe market. This is evidence that that’s come true,” she said.

“What we keep finding is that manufacturers innovate,” she said. “They step up. They not only meet the standards, but they also provide a superior product.”

Another plus, in her opinion: While in recent years, lighting manufacturing had been “fleeing offshore,” the Cree bulbs are primarily manufactured in the U.S. — in Cree’s Durham plant, which hired nearly 200 people to do the job.

Cree’s Watson said the LED chips are made in Durham, then sent to Asia, where the innards that produce the filament-like light quality that Cree says is so superior are assembled. Then it’s back to Durham for the rest of the bulb assembly and packaging.

The outer part of the bulb is actually the same glass that was on the incandescents, except it’s been coated to make it harder to break.

The Cree bulbs will be available exclusively at Home Depot.

Checking Home Depot’s website for 40-watt bulbs of the A19 shape — the one that would go in a regular tableside lamp — I see prices as low as $9.47 for an EcoSmart bulb that is eight watts. But it doesn’t appear to be dimmable. And the color, at 3000 Kelvin, would be slightly bluer than the 2700 Kelvin bulb Cree has produced.

Prices only go up from there.

“There are more and more options coming into the market,” Callahan said. “And superior quality. All of which is good for consumers. We see this as a really big step, but one that’s being made by others as well.”

Callahan feels especially vindicated because for a while, the efficiency standards became a political football. The “nanny” government was going to come into our homes and tell us what bulbs to use. There was talk of a repeal.

But manufacturers wanted the standards to level the playing field, and they knew they could create better products, she said.

“It becomes all the sweeter, the reality of it, when the bulbs are sitting on your desk and you know everyone that you work with wants to get their hands on them.”

Let the ASE staff bidding begin.