LED Market Insights: Are We at the Tipping Point?

Do you remember when you were a child and on a long drive with your parents? You would ask “Are we there yet?” Well that’s a key question throughout the lighting industry right now as it relates to the use of LED technology. However, it is a very different answer depending on whether you talking about the commercial or residential segments.In the commercial world, I have recently heard many lighting designers say they are using LED products in every one of their projects now. Although not across all applications yet, there are many situations where the designers have gained confidence in the quality and performance of LED products.And the payback has begun to make sense financially in the commercial market, as the costs of LEDs have come down and the use of LEDs helps to deliver the required energy efficiency levels necessary for LEED certification and other commercial market incentives. We seem to be very close to, if not at, the tipping point in that segment.Regarding the residential market, however, we are still some distance from the destination. There is certainly an ever-increasing amount of product on the retail shelf, but I just don’t get the sense that the unit sales are too exciting yet. The portion of the total sales dollars in the overall bulb market that is now coming from LED replacement lamps may be significantly up, but just look at the retail pricing. It does not take a lot of LED unit sales to impact the overall business in dollars. The number of LED units sold is really the best indicator of how fast the adoption is happening. That theory seems validated whenever I talk to people in the aisles of Home Depot or Lowe’s.So what’s the hold up? Of course, pricing is still the main issue for the homeowner. For example, if a home has a cost per kWh (kilo-Watt per hour) of $.10, and a typical average household use of 2 hours per day (recently reported at 1.8 hours on average in a Department of Energy report), the cost of the annual energy usage of a single 60W incandescent bulb is $4.38. OK, so the homeowner can buy an LED bulb, save about $3.50 annually on energy and maybe another bulb purchase in this scenario, but is a $4.00 annual savings enough to justify a $25 to $35 purchase up front? That’s about a 6 to 9 year payback, meaning just when you break even! A pretty long time for the average person. Now some people will just not understand how to do this calculation, or buy LED lighting anyway because they are under the impression that the savings will happen faster. Others will buy LED because it’s the latest, coolest technology and they want to do the right thing for the environment. But to dramatically penetrate the mass consumer market, it’s mostly about the price at this point.I think the real tipping point in the consumer market will come when the retail price becomes affordable to change a number of the most common screw-based bulbs all at once over to LED. The average home has well over 40 sockets. Today, replacing every one of those is more than a $1000 project, and likely not to occur in very high frequency. Even to change the 10 that are most used in a home is a significant investment when people think about what prices they are accustomed to paying for incandescent bulbs or CFL’s. Will the residential market tipping point arrive when a homeowner can change out 6 to 10 bulbs to LED for say, under $100? That certainly feels more like it. Frankly, I have no formal research to support this theory, just years of experience in selling consumer products through the home improvement and mass retail channels.LED chip costs will continue to drop dramatically over the next few years, allowing manufacturers and retailers to reach these lower price levels. A $10 to $15 LED 60W lamp might make the homeowner’s decision a no brainer. However, rather than waiting for those lower cost versions to hit the market, the utility companies could play a big role in accelerating it. Utility company incentives for purchasing and using LED lighting products are still far less prevalent than CFL, and many parts of the county have not offered either. As an industry, it is important that we continue to bring this opportunity to the top of mind of the utilities. Rather than waiting for the expected decreases in manufacturing cost, it’s one way that we can get to our destination a lot faster.