Unlike the beloved incandescent light bulb, the fluorescent light is a technology that has been tolerated, but never embraced, despite its years of dominance.
Cree hopes to change that with the release of its light-emitting diode (LED) T8 lamp.
“There [are] a lot of sacrifices we’ve been living with in this fluorescent world,” said Jeff Hungarter, product portfolio manager for Cree Lighting. “There is a huge opportunity.”
The commercial lighting sector accounts for more than 40 percent of all lighting in the U.S. and is dominated by fluorescents. There are about 2.3 billion fluorescent sockets in the country, about 1.3 billion of which are T8 sockets, according to Cree, which is a big market -- and a big bet. Pike Research puts the 2014 combined T8 and T5 market at more than $4 billion.
T8 lamps are more efficient than some fluorescents, but there is an additional 30 percent to 35 percent energy savings that can come from switching to LEDs. Despite these advantages, LED technology has never been able to compete head-to-head with fluorescents in efficacy and color quality (see this DOE report on LED T8s).
“The next innovation from Cree aims to end an era of compromise by taking on the billions of linear fluorescent lamps plaguing North American buildings with a true T8 lamp replacement with nearly universal ballast compatibility and industry-best CRI, while consuming 30 percent less energy,” the company said in a statement.
LED options exist for T8 bulbs, but they make up less than 1 percent of the market, says Hungarter. One of the problems is that there are various types of ballasts for the T8 lamps. Each sends a different current to the lamp, so most LEDs available for T8s have only been able to fit certain types of ballast or would require some rewiring.
Cree’s design for its T8 lamp can be used with more than 90 percent of existing ballasts, said Hungarter. “From a technology standpoint,” he said, “that’s huge.”
Raise Energy Solutions, a startup, offers a ballast-compatible LED tube as well. It uses a circuit which Engineer.com's Tom Lombardo describes as "absorb[ing] the short high-voltage burst that the ballast provides." He adds, "The ballast itself remains in the circuit and uses a small amount of power."
The Cree bulb also improves upon the light quality of the fluorescent, moving from approximately 80 on the color rendering index, or CRI, to approximately 90. A CRI score of 100 is the closest to natural light that a bulb can get. One of Cree’s successes in penetrating the incandescent LED lighting market is that the company was the first in the industry to have an LED bulb with a CRI of 93.
The LED T8 is still far more expensive than traditional fluorescent technology. The suggested price for the Cree lamp is about $30, about ten times the cost of a traditional bulb. The price, however, is within about 10 percent of other competing LEDs, said Hungarter.
With increasing utility rebates for the lights, which can range from $5 to $15 per lamp, the price could be easier to swallow. In 2008, there was about $3.1 billion in total U.S. rebate funds, with the money concentrated in ten states. The figures are expected to more than double in coming years, with a total of $7.4 billion to $12.4 billion in rebates expected to be available by 2020.
Cree also offers a five-year guarantee for the bulb, although it could last for up to eight years, depending on how often it is used. Typical fluorescents need to be changed about every two to three years, so halving the maintenance of the bulbs is another significant upside.
The price will have to come down, however. “To really move the needle, we’ll have to keep innovating,” said Hungarter. But that is exactly what Cree is focused on. He noted that the price of the company's first-generation LED downlight went from $100 to less than $20 in just a few years' time.
Unlike some lighting incumbents, the North Carolina-based company does not have to balance investment in new technology with maintaining legacy portions of its product portfolio. It is also aggressive about pricing its bulbs; it sells a $99 LED street light and was the first to offer a warm-white 40-watt-equivalent LED for less than $10.
Unlike the residential market, where Cree is a relatively new name, Hungarter said the sales pitch in the commercial market is easier given the company’s success with its previous products. Earlier this year, Cree also jumped into the $1.7 billion lighting controls market with its SmartCast product.
“We’re 100 percent LED-focused,” said Hungarter. “We’re a technology company looking at lighting, not a lighting company looking at LEDs."
The Cree LED T8 Series promotional video: