The solution to CFL's weaknesses, manufacturers say, is the light-emitting diode (LED), a technology that uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. According to ToolBase, LED fixtures incorporate a built-in driver (like a fluorescent ballast) or use a plug-in transformer that allows portable fixtures to run on standard AC power. Bulbs generate about 20 to 30 lumens per watt.

Although they've been around since the 1960s, LEDs are only now making strides in the market. Zachary Gibler, chief business development officer for Dallas-based LED manufacturer Lighting Science Group Corp., has even proclaimed 2008 “the year of the LED light.” Why the confidence? Gibler says LEDs are “now at a point where they deliver comparable performance to incandescent. They can put out the same amount of light, the color temperature is similar, and the color rendering is now close to incandescent.”

But some designers say LEDs have a long way to go. “I don't use [them] often because [the technology is] not mature enough,” says Naomi Miller, FIALD, FIES, of Naomi Miller Lighting Design in Troy, N.Y. “The color rendering is not very good, and many flicker during operation with a dimmer.” She concedes that LEDs are great for colored lights, but she says they're inconsistent for white light. The fixtures also don't generate as many lumens as manufacturers claim. “The technology is evolving very fast,” she says, but adds that LEDs are still about five years away from perfection. “If you put in a fixture now and something goes wrong, you may have to replace the entire unit,” she warns.

Mark Samson, CEO of Moda Light in Cape Coral, Fla., disagrees. He says his company, a manufacturer of LED fixtures exclusively, has developed products that are every bit as consistent as incandescent and more energy-efficient than CFL. They “use only a small amount of electricity, last in excess of 50,000 hours, and are maintenance-free,” he says. One recently introduced 15-watt recessed unit is brighter than five 50-watt halogen bulbs, he claims.

Still, LEDs have hurdles to overcome too. They beam light in a single direction, so lenses or reflectors are needed to spread the illumination. They're also sensitive. “You have to radiate heat away from the bulb,” Gibler says.

Even when the technology is perfected, price will prevent widespread usage. “On a first-cost basis, LED is significantly more expensive,” Gibler explains. On the other hand, they're cheap to operate, using 1/7 the electricity of an incandescent bulb.

seeing the light

Lighting designer Pamela Hull Wilson, IALD, still believes there are enough lighting options available to meet efficiency and performance needs. It's just a matter of choosing the right product for the application. “I use a combination of all of the technologies,” says Wilson, principal of Dallas-based PHW Architectural Lighting Design. She likes low-voltage MR16s in dining rooms and CFLs and T5s for general lighting, and though she agrees LEDs are still being perfected, she uses them anyway for decorative uplighting.

Miller takes a similar approach. She says MR16s are very effective and efficient and is a fan of the new dimmable T5 fluorescents. “There are plenty of fluorescents that can give you a warm color, but you have to know what to look for,” she says. Choosing appropriate systems, she adds, “takes a little more education and a little more knowledge.”

In the meantime, GE says it's building a better incandescent bulb—one that will be four times as efficient as current technology and potentially comparable to CFL. Kevin Nolan, GE's vice president of technology, says “consumers want more options, and we plan to respond to their needs and deliver environmental benefits too.”